Loyalists opt for 'wait and see' approach: David McKittrick expects Ulster's main paramilitary groups to delay their decision on ending violence

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LOYALIST paramilitary groups yesterday signalled that they may take weeks or even months to decide whether they will follow the example of the IRA and declare a cessation of violence.

Both the major assassination groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, are opting for a 'wait and see' approach while they monitor the progress of the IRA ceasefire and its political developments.

Although rumours abound that a loyalist ceasefire could be declared within the next few days, the decision - after a weekend of discussion - is understood to be that they are not yet ready to fit the final piece into the jigsaw of the Northern Ireland peace process.

This will come as a disappointment to the many observers who had hoped for a quick and positive loyalist response to last week's move by the IRA.

The loyalist waiting game means that all sides, particularly the British Government, will be even more intensely aware that they could pay a heavy price for any mistakes or false steps in the developing peace process.

Sinn Fein spokesmen have made it clear that republicans are determined not to be provoked into retaliation by incidents such as the UVF car bomb explosion close to the party's Falls Road office on Sunday night.

Republicans are well aware, in fact, that they can benefit politically from such clear demonstrations of the fact that republicans were never the only source of violence. There is no sign presently that either of the loyalist groups is intent on any large-scale violent offensive aimed at forcing the IRA to abandon its ceasefire.

But the indications are that occasional UVF and UDA attacks can be expected to continue. Since these normally take the form of assassination attempts, this means that fears in nationalist areas, particularly in Belfast, will remain high in spite of the stoppage of IRA violence.

The situation will make unusual demands on the RUC and the Army, which now find themselves primarily concerned with dealing with loyalist terrorists rather than the IRA.

Loyalist concerns centre on seeking assurances that Northern Ireland's constitutional position and relationship with Britain will not be weakened in any political negotiations that lie ahead. They want to make sure that the IRA ceasefire is permanent, and that it was not brought about by any secret deal with the Government.

On a more immediate practical level, the loyalists want to make sure that the Irish National Liberation Army is to follow the IRA's example. There have been conflicting reports about the attitude of the INLA, the small independent republican organisation which was responsible for killing two senior UVF members earlier this year.