Loyalists have already openly warned that they will intensify their violence 'to a ferocity never imagined'. Security sources say that this is no empty threat and intelligence reports indicate plans for violence on a scale not seen since the Seventies. They are particularly worried that loyalist rhetoric about what was described as 'the pan- nationalist front' means that not only republicans but also constitutional nationalist politicians are under threat.
The security assessment is supported by community activists in loyalist areas. One said: 'Some of these new paramilitary leaders won't listen to anybody. The old guard would at least listen to you, but some of the new ones - you just can't talk to them at all.'
The largest loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association, has in recent years replaced older leaders with younger and more militant men. It was banned by the Government last year, partly on the strength of intelligence reports that its leaders were uninterested in politics and were intent only on more shootings. But the ban has been of little practical help to the RUC in arresting activists, and there are signs that the detection rate is falling. Loyalist killings are at their highest point since the worst days of the Seventies. For two years now they have exceeded those of the IRA.
The traditional killing fields of north Belfast and mid-Ulster are as dangerous as ever, and violence has increased in south and east Belfast where extreme Protestants killed 16 people last year. In south Belfast, some of the killings appear to indicate loyalists venting their disapproval of a rising Catholic population.
As has always been the case, the majority of loyalist victims are non-political Catholics, often killed at random. Only four of last year's 38 victims were known republicans, and only one was involved in paramilitary activity. Eight more had a family connection with republicans but were not themselves known to be involved. In one case, the elderly parents of an IRA man were shot dead; in another, the brother of a former Sinn Fein councillor was killed.
Twenty of the dead had no known political or paramilitary associations, including eight who died in UDA 'spray jobs' - indiscriminate attacks with automatic weapons on crowded betting shops in Belfast. Loyalist groups often claim that their victims are associated with republican groups; these claims are mostly spurious, and often disputed by the families of the dead, by priests and by Sinn Fein. Most tellingly, they are often dismissed by the security forces. Police witnesses regularly testify at inquests that the victims had no republican associations.
In one recent example, at the inquest into the death of a Catholic claimed by loyalists to be a member of the IRA, a detective said: 'On the contrary, he was very well thought of in the community and he had never come under adverse police attention.'
Loyalist violence has, however, always been more nakedly sectarian than that from the republican quarter: the extreme loyalists tend to regard the Catholic community as a whole as the enemy, and lose little sleep when an uninvolved Catholic is killed.
Several factors have contributed to the steady rise in violence. In the early Eighties, loyalist activity was at a low level, but the increased polarisation and political uncertainty that followed the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement brought a rise in killings. The unmasking of the British Army's intelligence agent Brian Nelson, together with the hurried departures of two other informers, may mean that loyalist ranks are not so well penetrated by the security forces as in the past.
The new apolitical UDA leadership has been markedly less inhibited than its predecessors, while a consignment of arms as part of a deal with South African agents four years ago means the illegal armoury is probably better stocked than ever.
Another contributing factor may have been the lack of success of the Northern Ireland political talks. The huge gap that they exposed between Unionist and nationalist ideas may have reinforced the notion that the problem is beyond political resolution and can only be settled by violent means.