For some time observers have dreaded loyalist groups obtaining high-grade explosives. They believe the death toll could rise dramatically if loyalist terrorists returned to their 1970s tactics of setting off no-warning explosions at pubs and other targets in Catholic districts.
In recent years the loyalist killing rate has doubled from about 20 a year to around 40. But almost without exception these have been caused in shootings, and the loyalists' failure to obtain explosives has been one of the few silver linings of a deteriorating situation.
Nobody doubts that, if they could, militant Protestant extremists would go back to blowing up bars and hotels. Throughout the 1970s, this type of attack routinely killed up to five people. In one 1971 attack, 15 people died when the Ulster Volunteer Force bombed a north Belfast bar.
The material would also have been used, probably, in attacks on the Irish Republic, which in the 1970s frequently suffered from loyalist bombings. In 1974, in one of the worst incidents of the Troubles, no-warning bombs cost more than 30 lives.
The UVF, whose material was seized at Teesport, is still in the business of attacking Catholics, but this year it has killed only half as many as the Ulster Defence Association, the other main loyalist paramilitary group.
Because of this lower activity rate, UDA members have taken, in recent months, to calling the UVF, sardonically, 'the peace people'. It now appears that the UVF was putting much of its effort, and a great deal of money, into acquiring the arms shipment seized yesterday.
Yesterday, the source of the money to fund the operation was regarded as worrying. In recent years loyalist groups have been hard-pressed to raise much smaller amounts, so the size of this consignment raises the possibility that the group has a source of money unknown to the intelligence agencies.
Loyalist opinion in Northern Ireland is particularly insecure at the moment, with rumours sweeping Belfast that the Government may be considering a deal with the IRA and Sinn Fein. In times such as these loyalist groups react by stepping up their activity, so that last night many were heaving sighs of relief that the guns and explosives had not reached the hands of militants.Reuse content