The Ulster Declaration: Loyalists scrutinise text to see what lies between lines

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THE UNIONIST community in Northern Ireland is such an insecure entity, nervous of all novelty, that even the prospect of peace can be enough to set alarm bells ringing, writes David McKittrick.

When a community holds the belief that the proper way to bring an end to IRA violence is by inflicting military defeat on the terrorists, attempts to bring Sinn Fein to the conference table can seem not only futile but dangerous.

And when those attempts include complicated new elaborations on guarantees, traditional suspicions are awakened. The Major-Reynolds joint declaration is so complex that Unionists will now spend some time scrutinising the text, searching for what may lie between its lines.

Last night it was too early to say whether the considered response will be relatively relaxed or one of alarm. The widely differing reactions of the Rev Ian Paisley, who says it is a sell-out, and the Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux, who received it fairly calmly, have caused some confusion.

A few members of Mr Molyneaux's party rang its headquarters to say they were resigning because of his attitude. Some Unionists said they were alarmed by paragraph 4, which deals with the self-determination of the Irish people, and demanded clarification. But other Unionists appeared to find little cause for concern, and so far there is no talk of protest rallies. The loyalist paramilitary groups said they would consider it and give their reaction tomorrow.

Mr Paisley has his own reasons for crying 'sellout'. No stranger to the politics of denunciation, he condemned the document without reading it: he got his retaliation in first. The Democratic Unionist leader has a European election to fight next year, and believes he does best in times of heightened tension.

Mr Molyneaux, by contrast, has his own reasons for hoping the Protestant population stays calm. Although disapproving of the document, he hopes to maintain the special relationship which he believes he has developed with the Prime Minister. That would be difficult if Protestants were on the streets burning John Major in effigy, as they did Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Molyneaux hedged his bets yesterday with a Janus-like performance. In one interview he described the declaration as 'a comparatively safe document' while in another he said: 'It has the makings of a betrayal.' In yet another he said it would take days to study and decode it.

The two Unionist leaders, and the loyalist paramilitary groups, have set out their respective stalls. Much will also depend on the nationalist response, for it is very common for the two sides in Northern Ireland to pay as much attention to the reactions of their opponents as they do to those of their leaders.

The Unionist community, much-reviled, has also been much bruised over the years as, in its eyes, the nationalists have made gain after gain. It is now poised on the point of deciding whether this declaration is another nationalist gain, or a genuine chance of peace.