Divided they stand: Loyalists talk of giving up the gun, but Geoffrey Beattie found them as split as the mainstream Unionist leaders they deride

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WE WERE a week into the ceasefire. There was an air of change about. The Belfast Telegraph was predicting that the demilitarised look could be the new big trend this autumn in Northern Ireland. Soldiers on the streets had dumped their hard hats, while security staff at the Ulster Brewery on the Glen Road had been issued with new uniforms - snappy navy blazers and company ties replacing the old military-style brown tunics and peaked caps. Old certainties looked less sure somehow - the military feel of Belfast, the isolation of Sinn Fein.

But it was still just a unilateral ceasefire .

The whole world was queuing up to try to determine the loyalist position on the IRA ceasefire, and particularly the views of the loyalist paramilitaries. David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, a man who is 'believed to have a special insight into loyalist paramilitary thinking', was extremely busy. Dutch television had just finished with him; now it was the turn of the Australian papers. He was slightly out of breath when it got to my turn. 'Sorry to keep you waiting. I've just had the Hawaiian Freedom Fighters on the phone. They wanted to know how to go about demanding separation from the United States.'

I almost wrote it down before I realised that David had not lost his sense of humour, even in the the face of the multitude of uncertainties which seemed to be confronting the loyalist community. I asked him directly about the feelings of that part of the loyalist community into which he had special insight. 'There is plenty of worry and plenty of discussion,' he said. 'The uncertainty is, of course, being fuelled by the conflicting opinions of the two Unionist party leaders (Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux), who are saying things diametrically opposed to one another.'

I asked him if there was going to be a loyalist ceasefire and when such an announcement might occur. 'The first thing that we need to find out is whether the IRA ceasefire is permanent. If it is, then I must say that it would be difficult in the long term for the loyalist paramilitary to wage war on the IRA. As to when a loyalist ceasefire might happen, it is important to stress that the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) don't want to be rushed into any decision.

'The UDA and the UVF also want to take soundings at grassroots level. I can say that there is a seed of confidence beginning to grow, and if there is a growth of this confidence this will be reflected in a decision.'

I HAD heard from one UVF member earlier that day that the UVF were keener on the idea of a ceasefire than the UDA. My informant put it quite succinctly. 'The UDA had a big meeting last Thursday and the general view was 'f- the ceasefire'.' When I put it to my informant that this seemed a little strange given that it was the UVF rather than the UDA who had car-bombed the Sinn Fein offices the previous Sunday, his reply was: 'This wasn't meant to be a deliberate attempt to provoke the IRA into some kind of revenge attack. It was more of an attempt by the UVF to make a statement saying that we are still here and still players in the game.'

What the precise distinction is between the UVF and the UDA is difficult to define. They have different histories: the UVF is the older, originally formed in 1912 to oppose Irish Home Rule. It was incorporated into the British Army in 1914 and many of its members died at the Somme - a sacrifice that is still a source of pride.

The name was revived by Shankill Road loyalists in 1966 and the group was banned in the same year after murdering a Catholic. Its activities have increased, particularly in the past 15 years, but it is the smaller of the two groups.

The UDA was formed in September 1971 as a union of local vigilante groups in loyalist areas. Until two years ago it was legal and maintained a veneer of political respectability, but from very early days it was involved in violence, employing the nom de guerre of the Ulster Freedom Fighters when laying claim to attacks.

The two groups may espouse the same cause, but over the years there have been bitter feuds, occasionally involving murders. As one UVF member said: 'Basically the UVF don't much like the UDA and vice versa.' Which group a young Protestant might join is more likely to be decided by the loyalties of his friends than any ideological distinctions.

Last week David Ervine was keen to stress their coming together. 'The UDA and the UVF are attempting to operate politically as one organisation. Any military operations will still be planned separately. But any announcement of a ceasefire will come from the Combined Loyalist Military Command. We need this kind of unity to counteract the pan-nationalist element on the other side. We've all seen the pictures of Adams, Hume and Albert Reynolds in Dublin, signifying a more-or-less united nationalist front. The loyalist paramilitaries have to form an equally united front, in contrast to the fragmented approach of our politicians.'

It was the way that he said 'our politicians'. I sensed a growing impatience, if not disillusionment, with some Unionist politicians, and there had been signs of similar feelings in a number of conversations I had had in loyalist areas of North Belfast that day. One UVF member had said that 'Paisley's only out for number one. He spends too much of his time at Westminster or Strasbourg rather than talking to grassroots Protestants. The loyalist paramilitaries need to spend more time developing a coherent political agenda like Sinn Fein.'

Ervine himself reflected on how the loyalist paramilitaries had been used over the years. 'A lot of Unionist politicians are sabre rattlers without the sabres. They roll out the paramilitary card whenever it is convenient for them, and disown them the rest of the time. My feeling is that the loyalist paramilitaries will be less prone to being used in the future. Their political interests must have a more direct expression.'

There were other questions I wanted to ask. Like many people from Belfast, I find it hard to imagine life in the loyalist sections of the city without the pervasive influence of the paramilitaries. If there was peace in Northern Ireland would all these men and women who have made a career out of paramilitary activity just pack up and go back to their previous occupation of butcher or unemployed baker? Somehow it is very difficult to imagine, especially when you see people 'who have never worked', as they say, driving past in big cars. Or when you witness how routine the collection of the weekly contribution for the 'loyalist prisoners' welfare fund' from local shops is.

I put this to David Ervine. 'Well, my view is that this society won't be without the UDA and the UVF for a very long time. They will be required as a kind of guarantor. Now there is a widespread belief that the loyalist paramilitaries are heavily into racketeering. But I would maintain that it is not as widespread as is claimed. In any organisation, you get your idealists and some individuals who just want to use the organisation. Take the American army in the Second World War, do you mean to say no soldier ever got involved in the black market? Or even consider the spiv in Dad's Army.'

I caught myself smiling as I tried to imagine Private Walker in Dad's Army wearing a balaclava, and carrying an automatic weapon. But the smile didn't last long. The challenge for the loyalist paramilitaries is formidable. The world waits to see if they will respond in kind to the IRA ceasefire. However, to do so requires a degree of co-ordination and consensus that so far has not been much in evidence. The perceived pan-nationalist front poses a challenge of potentially gigantic proportions to the loyalist community. Now, the big question is, could they match politically this emergent force. Could they, in fact, get their act together?

I left David Ervine to take some soundings myself of grassroots opinion from the loyalist paramilitary hinterland of the Shankill. Here I found the same deeply held concerns about the ceasefire. This seemed to be connected to a general feeling of anxiety about the future, which in turn often boiled down to the ultimate question of loyalist unity and strength.

I TALKED to Robert first. He said that he himself was not a member of any organisation, but that most of his friends were. He had survived an Irish National Liberation Army attack, when he says he was mistaken for a UVF member. 'They thought because all my mates were in the organisation, that I must be. That's the way their minds seems to work.'

I asked first about his personal reaction to the ceasefire. 'It's dead on. It's a step in the right direction. I know a lot of people are very worried about it though. They're saying that some deal has been done between the Government and Sinn Fein. Our so-called politicians are divided on it. I know that Major says that nothing's going on, but he might not know nothing. I wouldn't trust that Mayhew (Sir Patrick, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) as far as I could throw him. Our ones are just getting fed up with it. They're sick of the IRA getting their own way all the time, but in the end our ones will just say 'Go to hell'. The republicans can have their rallies and fly all the flags they like; it's not getting them anywhere. They're never going to own this country.'

Robert argued that the loyalist position was still one of strength, that in the event of a civil war loyalists from whatever camp - UVF or UDA, paramilitary or Crown forces - would unite.

'There's a lot of rivalry between the UDA and the UVF. They know each other, but they wouldn't join forces, unless it came to civil war. If it came to civil war, the RUC and the (Royal) Irish Regiment would join forces with the UDA and the UVF. If the IRA and the Irish government joined forces to take over our government we'd join forces and wipe them out. They may have plenty of guns hidden, but we've got the stronger side.'

He also argued that the loyalists would never be sold out because of the sheer ruthlessness of some members of the paramilitary organisations. He described one of their recruitment techniques. 'One question I got put to me was 'Could you walk into a living room and see your target sitting there and just go for the hit? Say he was an IRA man. Could you shoot him dead in front of his wee children?' I said: 'No way. I couldn't do it in front of the family.' So yer man says to me: 'We'll not talk to you anymore about joining the UVF.'

'Some of my mates wouldn't give a f-; they'd push the child out of the road and shoot him to get at their target. That's how bad they are. But in other ways they're dead on. You can go out with them and have a good drink and a good laugh. They're probably only bitter because they've lost close family to the IRA. I'd only join the UVF if it came to civil war, to protect my kids. But not at the moment.'

Robert was confident there would be no sell-out. He seemed to think the Protestants were in a very strong position, because of his faith in loyalist unity. Therein lay his feelings of confidence for the future and his welcoming of the ceasefire.

But he added one postscript: 'I think Gerry Adams is trying to undermine this unity at the moment. He wants us squabbling among ourselves, and he's managed it with the Unionist MPs.'

BUT THIS faith in pan-loyalism was not shared throughout this community. Robert's own sister- in-law, Linda, had a somewhat different view. 'Look at the other night, down there in Dover Street. The police came up and did two raids on two houses. After they raided the houses the police lingered on. Then they started whistling the Irish national anthem, and they were shouting 'Up the IRA'. They were doing this just to wind the loyalist people up. This child turned round and said to one of the policemen: 'Mister, there's a banger at your foot.' The policeman told the child to f- off, but the next minute, bang] The policeman wouldn't believe the child.'

But isn't the RUC primarily a Protestant force? Why would they do this, I asked. 'I wouldn't say most of them are Protestant. Most of them live in Protestant areas, but that doesn't mean that they are Protestant. I just think that they feel safer in Protestant areas.'

Linda said that she had her own personal experience of the way that the RUC can behave towards the loyalist community. 'The police came and arrested my husband about two years ago. Somebody had hijacked a lorry carrying electrical goods. They came and they searched our house. Somebody told them that Sammy was involved in it. They told us what they were looking for - fridge freezers, microwaves and electrical appliances. And anything like hoods or balaclavas or baseball bats. They turned the house over. My son Ben had a baseball cap, which says Belfast Children's Choir on it. So they took this evidence and arrested Sammy.

'So Sammy says to them: 'Do you think that I'm going to go outside with a hat that says Belfast Children's Choir on it?' But this was their evidence and they put it in a wee bag. So they arrested him and they took him to Castlereagh. The things that they told him in there. They told him that I was a whore, out whoring at nights and that I'd a load of fellas in the house. The next day they told him a different story saying that I was arrested and the children were in care.

'Then there was this woman, a police officer. Sammy pointed her out down the town. She came in with her wee skirts on and sat in front of him with her legs open, you know flashing away. They were just trying to antagonise him, to get him going. That was just a wee thing that they did to Sammy, but they do worse things there than that to the Protestants.'

This was a story that flew in the face of all of Robert's talk of loyalist unity in the doomsday scenario of a civil war. It was also the kind of tale that one might have thought would be more common in republican areas of Belfast.

Linda was quite explicit about the role of the RUC in the event of a civil war: 'I don't think the RUC would stand up for any organisation. I just think they would disappear and let both sides of the community fight it out amongst themselves.'

Linda was consequently very wary of the ceasefire, having little faith in the concept of loyalist unity, with the forces of the Crown and the paramilitaries combining. She even seemed to doubt whether the RUC was a Protestant force.

On the streets there was also a good deal of uncertainty about how easy it would be to move towards a province at peace with no paramilitary involvement, given the fact that the paramilitaries do seem to contain the odd spiv, in David Ervine's language. Even Robert, whose closest friends were in the organisation, was cynical.

'What are all these people who are in paramilitary organisations going to do if there is peace? They'd still do their racketeering and drug dealing and their protection rackets. That won't stop if there's peace here. That's a money game. So that's why some don't want to call a ceasefire. Too much money involved. Some people must be shitting themselves. They'll be saying to themselves: 'I'll be out of a job if there's peace.' '

The eyes of the world are on the Protestant paramilitaries. The soundings go on at grassroots level. At this most significant of times the feeling is that the lead that is required from their politicians is simply not there. The UVF and the UDA are talking about more direct political expression and some move towards political unity to offset emergent pan-nationalism. This will all take time.

In the meantime, the weekly collections for the loyalist prisoners' welfare funds go on. Some hope that they will go on for ever.

(Photograph omitted)