A decade further on, there are unmistakable signs that a major inversion has taken place. It is now Protestant alienation and disquiet that is reaching dangerous new heights, with the most obvious indication of this the alarming rise in loyalist violence.
The killing rate has doubled in recent years, until it now outstrips that of the IRA and republican groups. Recruitment to paramilitary groups has gone up, with the organisations becoming steadily more ruthless and vicious.
One opinion poll carried out earlier this month by a Protestant Belfast newspaper, on the admittedly unscientific basis of telephone polling, came up with the alarming result that 42 per cent of Protestants supported loyalist paramilitaries.
A former loyalist prisoner living in a hardline area confides that many young men in the district admire him and the acts of violence he has carried out. This man now disapproves of violence but, he says, the mood is so militant that it is simply not possible for him to speak out and say so. He has thus become an unwilling role model.
While most Protestants disapprove of such violence, observers say they detect a disturbing rise in toleration of it. According to Chris McGimpsey, a senior Ulster Unionist politician in Belfast, Protestants who a year ago were expressing 'absolute disgust' about loyalist violence are now much more muted in their comments.
He said: 'When people are, if not supporting it, at least saying nothing about it, you realise that the temper of the community is increasing. In other words, the preconditions for violence are increasing so the opportunity for loyalist paramilitary groups is increasing, and that's going to lead to even further sectarian killings.'
A similar warning comes from an unexpected source - the Alliance party, which as a non-sectarian middle of the road grouping usually tends to seek common ground rather than to highlight differences. But its leader, Dr John Alderdice, said: 'The British government now says very clearly that it is neutral on the question of Northern Ireland's future. Nationalists find themselves in a position of considerable success politically, and I think they have the scent of success in their nostrils. When that happens it creates a frightened, humiliated minority who turn to violence because they see no other way forward.'
Some nationalist observers accuse those who make such statements of exploiting and exaggerating Protestant unease for their own purposes. One said: 'This is a highly opportunistic approach by Protestant politicians. For some of them the borderline between prediction and incite ment is becoming very blurred. Some of this is basic sectarian animosity finding a socially acceptable expression in terms of alienation.'
But a survey of general Protestant opinion leaves little doubt that much of the rising tide of violence stems from a widespread sense that nationalism is making progress and Unionism is losing out.
This is confirmed in conversations with a number of moderate Protestant churchmen in Belfast. One said: 'Everybody condemns loyalist violence, then they say 'but' . . . Certainly when an obvious republican gets shot many feel, well that's one person we can happily do without.'
A former moderator of the Presbyterian Church said: 'I'm afraid there is a growing toleration of violence within the Unionist community. The view is that democratic politics doesn't work, that political negotiation doesn't get anywhere, and the only thing the powers-that-be understand is violence.
'People feel they can't articulate their longings and aspirations, that there's no ability to influence policy. Young people feel they have nothing to lose - they have no stake in society, no motivation. That vacuum is being filled by the paramilitaries, who give them an alleged cause, a purpose for living.'
A third cleric added: 'It's the old axiom: violence begets violence. We're seeing that. The sad fact is that where people feel at risk they're not very rational, and that's when aggression and anger manifests itself.' Much of the violence stems from a deep-seated Unionist unease. This is a community that thinks its allies are unreliable and its opponents are prospering: a community chronically unsure of itself and its future.
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