Northern Ireland: Loyalist insiders look to Christmas ceasefire

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A MAJOR part of the jigsaw to be slotted into place is in the hands of the loyalist paramilitary groups, who have yet to give their definitive response to the IRA ceasefire.

Although loyalist violence has continued, it has done so at a much lower level since the ceasefire, and sources close to the Protestant paramilitaries have hinted that a stoppage is probably on the way.

One source said: 'The bottom line is that these people realise it would be ridiculous for them to keep on fighting when the IRA has stopped. It just wouldn't make any sense.'

The general assessment is that, once the IRA and INLA have stopped, it will be a major surprise if the loyalist campaign has not been called off by Christmas at the latest.

At the same time, it may well be that the loyalist ceasefire, when it comes, will be of a different character to the IRA cessation. The republicans were anxious to secure a place at the conference table and recognised this could only happen with a complete ending of their campaign. Loyalist groups, by contrast, do not have the same ambition to get into mainstream politics, and their leaders show no sign of wishing to disband their organisations. They may therefore declare that they are ceasing offensive activities but will remain in existence to defend the loyalist cause should that prove necessary in the future.

This means that they will, if they can, continue to be a force in the loyalist ghettos, where they have a financial machine based on pubs, clubs and other activities, many of them illegal.

In the event of lasting peace some members may drift away, but many of the leaders will be intent on preserving their status as men of power in the back streets.