The hard men now talking peace

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Among the four Loyalists who met John Major yesterday are two men with serious paramilitary criminal records - a fact which has raised eyebrows in Unionist and Nationalist circles.

By far the most controversial is John White, the prisons spokesman for the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), who was given a life sentence for the murder of SDLP Stormont Senator Paddy Wilson and his girlfriend in 1973. Responsibility for the murder, which shocked many in Unionist communities, was later claimed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which has links with the UDP.

Mr White, who served 14 years and left prison on a life licence, is described as a shadowy character, a "hard man" who can help keep Loyalist paramilitaries on track. One political observer said: "With his track record White can get Loyalist hard-liners to accept things few others could."

He was accompanied by the UDP's leader Gary McMichael, a 27-year-old life insurance salesman with no paramilitary track record; his father, John McMichael, was a well-known Loyalist hard man with strong links with the Ulster Defence Association, and he was murdered by the IRA in 1987.

The other convicted Loyalist is David Ervine, now spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and a far more influential political figure than Mr White and, probably, Mr McMichael.

Mr Ervine, 43, from east Belfast, was arrested in 1975 for possessing explosives and served five years of an 11 year sentence in the Maze Prison. There, in the Ulster Voluntary Force (UVF) wing, he underwent a political transformation and on his release joined the PUP to push for a non-violent solution to the troubles.

Widely seen as the most articulate and thoughtful of the Loyalist fringe politicians, Mr Ervine has won some praise from all sides for his honesty and apparent willingness to negotiate for peace while still being able to reflect and influence UVF paramilitary thinking.

However, many Nationalists regard his relatively open stance as "too good to be true" and some wonder if he is being used by the British Government.

The PUP's leader, Hugh Smyth, also at the meeting, is an former Lord Mayor of Belfast and long-serving City Councillor, who used to sit as an Independent. The PUP is seen as representing the Unionist working classes, many of whom regard the mainstream Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists with suspicion.