IRA Ceasefire: Unhappy Unionists left feeling outflanked: Fear and loathing among loyalists run deeper than suspicion of betrayal

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A LARGE element in the equation of whether Ireland is to have peace will depend on the recesses of the Unionist psyche - a psyche which is full of dark fears and lurking suspicions.

There is a real problem here, for the legacies of history and geography mean that Unionists are subject to an uncertainty which at the best of times border on the chronic. This means that the average Unionist politician is, naturally enough, opposed to the IRA campaign when the republicans are killing people and doing damage. But he is also, paradoxically, opposed to ceasefires, because he sees other dangers there.

The Unionist community has lived through 25 deeply unhappy years as the IRA campaign continued and as, in its eyes, nationalists made gain after gain. Its leaders believe that most of those advances have come about because of IRA violence, but that other gains have resulted from political activity by John Hume, the SDLP leader, and the Irish government. Seen from this perspective, it hardly matters whether the nationalists make progress through terrorism or diplomacy, because in either case the Unionist cause suffers.

Loyalist paramilitary leaders speak of John Hume with more or less the same hatred as when they refer to Gerry Adams. One Unionist problem is that their politicians are extremely bad at communicating with the outside world. They tend to be reticent to a fault, as with James Molyneaux, or loud and off- putting, as with the Rev Ian Paisley. Either way the Unionist case is not put over.

They lack the political skills of their rivals. Politics has for decades been a largely unregarded and faintly unpleasant activity for Unionists, so many of the best Protestant brains steer clear of it. In some Unionist quarters politics is a sort of sinister, voodoo-like practice by which Mr Hume and Mr Adams inexplicably win friends and influence people, leaving Unionist politicians behind. Many Unionists cannot bring themselves to believe that the IRA, which they regard as violent evil incarnate, is moving towards giving up the gun. In time they will probably reluctantly accept the fact, but it will bring them surprisingly little comfort.

The prospect then is that Unionist representatives will find themselves ranged against a true pan-nationalist front - a formidable alliance which would see Mr Hume, Mr Adams, the Irish government and Irish-Americans all singing from the same or similar hymn-sheets. These elements, Unionists feel, have already made considerable advances, most of them unwelcome to Protestants.

Together, they fear, they will have a power which will steadily shift British governments in an Anglo-Irish direction. Thus for many the ceasefire comes not as a relief but as a yet another source of menace.