The bullethole that may reignite Ulster's war

The loyalist ceasefire has stabilised Ulster. But after Friday's attack, David McKittrick asks whether it can survive
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The Independent Online
In a local election in May this year, one Unionist voter in 10 gave their support to two of the fringe loyalist parties whose previous levels of support could only be described as microscopic.

In doing so, the voters were signalling their endorsement of a new phenomenon in Northern Ireland: the fierce loyalist paramilitary had sprouted political wings which were, paradoxically, strikingly more moderate than mainstream Unionism.

Their appearance was a source of some dismay to the main Unionist parties. They watched with alarm as their votes leaked away and their hardline stances were undermined.

But the "new loyalists" were feted by almost everyone else as a refreshing and positive new element.

That vote secured places at the Stormont political talks for the two parties, the Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democratic Party which, in essence, speak for the principal loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and UDA.

The value of the two parties since then, in the eyes of most of the political spectrum, has been twofold:

On the one hand, they have played a constructive and by all accounts impressive role within the talks themselves.

On the other hand, the parties have helped to persuade the loyalist hard men not to go back to violence, even after the February collapse of the IRA ceasefire.

But the ceasefire's collapse meant that the IRA would be keeping up some level of violence, and that meant that sooner or later the loyalist cessation was bound to end. There were several reasons why it did not end sooner.

One was that politics proved to have an unexpected lure for the loyalists. The sight of their representatives being received in the White House and elsewhere had a real potency, and was good for their self-esteem.

Added to that was the fact that individual loyalists, such as David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, took to politics so well, and proved so articulate and effective, that this became a source of pride among loyalist working-class communities. Another reason was the hope that the IRA cessation might be restored.

Analogous as they are to Sinn Fein, the fringe parties had an instinctive empathy with what was happening within the republican movement and with the difficulties involved in being part of a movement with both paramilitary and political aspects.

It also helped that, until the bombing of the army's County Antrim headquarters in October, the IRA mostly confined its activities to Britain, and bombs in England are less provocative to the loyalists than bombs in Belfast.

All this helped keep the loyalist peace. In the meantime, the paramilitary groups did not dissolve themselves. Like the IRA, they remained in being, continued such activities as "punishment" beatings, and kept their powder dry.

The loyalist ceasefire has saved lives on a day-to-day basis, has increased the isolation of the IRA and helped keep the talks show on the road.

But the fringe loyalist spokesmen have warned that stresses and strains on the cessation have mounted with each new IRA attack and that loyalist patience was finite.

At the same time, they have preached to their paramilitary associates that reverting to violence would ease the pressure on the IRA and probably mean their expulsion from the talks.

Now the question arises of whether the loyalists intend a return to full- scale conflict, or whether they are planning the type of intermittent campaign which the IRA has waged since February.

The recent pre-eminence of the political loyalist has led many to forget that in the early 1990s the UVF and UDA killed more people than did the IRA.

There are hopes, but no guarantees, that a return to the worst of the bad old days is not a prospect.

One fear, however, is that a new "tit for tat" cycle develops, since this could easily escalate into a high level of violence.

Another bleak scenario is that the expulsion of the loyalist parties from the Stormont talks will lead to them turning away from politics, and that with the eclipse of the loyalist parties, there will be a reversion to the old belief that violence is a more potent force than dialogue.