Men of violence move closer to their old enemies: Moderation seems to be breaking out all over Belfast

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ONLY weeks after warnings from Protestant clergymen and community workers that Loyalists were in a feverish and dangerous state, unexpectedly moderate signals are being sent out from sections of the Unionist population of Northern Ireland.

The uncertainty and tension originally generated by the IRA cessation of violence has been replaced by an atmosphere of debate about the future, which suggests to some observers that some Unionists are attempting to redefine their identity.

Curiously, some of the most progressive noises are coming from hardline districts, particularly the Shankill Road area of Belfast where an IRA bomb killed nine local people last year. Edward Kinner, a Shankill community worker who has served a life sentence for killing a Catholic, went on local radio this week to say he would meet Sinn Fein: 'I don't think I would have any objections to talking to them. Had people been prepared to talk to them sooner the violence might have ended sooner.'

Such radical thinking is all the more surprising in view of the Protestant mood at the end of August. At that point the Rev Godfrey Brown, a former Presbyterian moderator noted for his caution and restraint, said: 'I must reflect the tremendous sense of fear and betrayal in the Unionist community, particularly the working-class Unionist community - the fear that they are about to be sold down the river because of some deal that is being done behind closed doors.'

There is still much uncertainty abroad, and there are still many hardline opinions to be heard. The Rev Ian Paisley's supporters continue to claim a sell-out is under way as part of a longterm British plot to disengage. Crucially, the Loyalist paramilitary groups have yet to follow the IRA and declare their own ceasefire, and there have been several unsuccessful Loyalist bombing attempts in recent days.

The bomb attacks have been the work of the Ulster Volunteer Force, but paradoxically much of the new thinking comes from those associated with it, stressing the need for talks and for new beginnings. In particular, a number of former UVF prisoners, some of whom killed Catholics in the 1970s, emerged after long jail sentences, educated, politicised and open to new ideas.

The phenomenon caused one commentator to ask this week: 'Could it be that we're past the figureheads now and into the people?'

Edward Kinner's appearance, on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, generated about 130 telephone calls, most of them supportive. He said he was hopeful that a new working-class Unionist party would emerge because Shankill people felt they had been totally misrepresented by the political parties.

He added: 'The Unionists in the past have done all sorts of sabre-rattling and every time there's been any attempt to make any kind of social change they've described it as a sell-out or a threat.

'The feeling in the past was basically that all they had to do was bring round a flute band and play some party tunes and people would come out and vote for them. Hopefully that will change. As a result of saying 'No' and being negative, I think we've got farther away from our British position.'

On the other hand, the Ulster Defence Association, the other main Loyalist paramilitary group, is showing few signs of enthusiasm for a conversion from terrorism into politics. The general feeling is that it is the UDA which has held up a Loyalist ceasefire announcement.

But against that, there have been other signs of more flexibility in Unionist thinking.

This week a group of senior Ulster Unionist MPs spent several days in Washington meeting US vice-president Al Gore and other figures: several years ago most Unionists would simply have denounced the Americans as pro-nationalist and refused to speak to them.

In Belfast, meanwhile, four Unionist councillors met a group of senior politicians from the Republic and took them up the Shankill, where they met Mr Kinner and others. Many such visits by southerners have in the past been boycotted by Loyalists.

In Belfast city hall's council chamber, notorious for its rancorous debates, a motion urging Loyalists to declare a ceasefire and urging all to work for an honourable settlement was passed unanimously. This caused local journalist Jim McDowell to write a story with the memorable opening line: 'Peace at last broke out in Belfast city hall last night.'

Cynics contend that many of these changes are more presentational than real; it may also be argued that in such a volatile and fluid situation opinions could harden up again as quickly as they have apparently eased. But for the moment it can at least be said that there are new stirrings where previously there was none; and that they raise the possibility that some of the grassroots may be less hidebound than their conventional political rep-