The Loyalist Ceasefire: Savage killers who marked hatred in blood: David McKittrick looks back on a frightening breed of assassin - tattooed and thirsting for revenge

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The Independent Online
TWO YEARS after the event, Harry Whan, divisional ambulance officer for the city of Belfast, still finds himself reliving the horror of a loyalist gun attack on a betting shop that killed five Catholics and wounded nine others.

'The scene was horrific, with bodies everywhere,' Mr Whan recalled. 'In that confined space there was a smell from the gunfire and all the bleeding and whatever that you couldn't describe.

'It has an effect on you as an individual. I get flashbacks to it, I get visions of what was going on. Even now talking about it, I get flashbacks to the original scene as I walked through the door: the smell, the feeling of being there.

'For other ambulancemen it was worse: they were knee deep in it, dealing with the dead and dying.'

What Mr Whan and his colleagues were dealing with was a tactic that has produced some of the worst excesses of the Troubles: the indiscriminate loyalist attack aimed at killing as many Catholics as possible.

Northern Ireland is now clinging to the hope that it has seen the last of such incidents. The record of the backstreet loyalist groups has been written in blood across the Troubles.

Fifteen Catholics dead at McGurk's bar when the little north Belfast pub collapsed after a bombing; more than 30 killed by no-warning bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in the Republic; five dead in the betting shop; hundreds more in incidents now only dimly recalled.

The IRA has received most of the attention and the publicity, but loyalist groups, principally the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, have taken around 900 lives, more than a quarter of all those killed in the Troubles.

The barbarity of some of the killings continues to cause a shudder: men shot on their doorsteps, or on their way to work, or in bed; men mown down in 'spray jobs' in pubs and bookies' shops; men tortured with red-hot pokers; men and women beaten and stabbed to death with inhuman savagery.

Some loyalist assassins tried to take a 'professional' approach, but many were of a more frightening type: unintelligent, poorly educated, tattooed, and full of sectarian hate and thirst for revenge. Often they killed while drunk; often their victims were chosen at random; often their deaths were horrible.

Ample historical precedents existed for the paramilitary groups. As far back as the 18th century, there was a tradition of rural gangs banding together for agrarian or sectarian purposes.

To this ancient memory was appended a more recent, and still applicable, political point, for Northern Ireland came into being as a direct result of a threatened revolt by Protestants in 1912.

When home rule for Ireland seemed inevitable, the Protestants of the north-east organised a large and plainly illegal 'Ulster Volunteer Force', armed with 25,000 rifles smuggled in from Germany. The UVF openly threatened to fight Britain in order to remain British, but the outbreak of the First World War averted overt confrontation.

After the war, the south of Ireland broke from Britain, but Northern Ireland remained attached, with many Protestants concluding they had delivered themselves from the united Ireland they dreaded through the threat of force. In a blurring of legality and illegality that has remained in the Protestant psyche, they felt themselves justified in breaking the law by reference to a higher purpose - preserving their heritage.

When the Troubles broke out in the late Sixties many working-class loyalists saw the civil rights movement as simply the IRA in a new and more insidious guise. In the Protestant ghettos concessions to the Catholic minority were viewed as weakening Protestant rights, and the first street clashes broke out.

Earlier, in 1966, a tiny loyalist group based in a Shankill Road bar and fuelled with large amounts of alcohol, had killed three people in drunken but lethal escapades. It called itself the UVF. A number of its members were jailed, including Augustus 'Gusty' Spence.

This was the same Gusty Spence who yesterday declared: 'Let us firmly resolve never again to permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare.'

At the time of these first killings, most loyalists thought Spence and his gang were crazy, but after the first riots an ominous piece of graffiti appeared on the Shankill Road. It said: 'Gusty was right.' At first, most Protestant groups confined their activities to vigilante patrols, but as the situation deteriorated more and more contemplated the use of force to counteract the IRA's violence.

The abolition of the Protestant-dominated Stormont government in the spring of 1972 opened the paramilitary floodgates. Up to 40,000 Protestants joined underground groups, principally the UDA, and marched in their thousands through Belfast.

At the same moment, the killings began in the backstreets and alleyways. It became obvious that to the UDA every Catholic was a target. More than a hundred Catholic civilians, most of them chosen at random, were killed in 1972 alone.

By 1974, the UVF had developed into a similar assassination force. In all, the loyalists have killed around 900 people, with more than 500 of these falling victim in the five years from 1972 to 1976.

The high point of loyalist paramilitary power came in 1974, when a UDA-inspired general strike brought large parts of Northern Ireland to a standstill and led to the collapse of a power-sharing administration.

Three years later the organisation over-reached itself when, in concert with the Rev Ian Paisley, it attempted to stage a re-run of the stoppage. The strike ignominiously fizzled out, dealing a body blow to the credibility of the paramilitaries. That credibility suffered further blows as it became apparent that important loyalist figures had become involved in racketeering and criminality on a major scale. The killing of one of the chief racketeers, Jim Craig, in an internal UDA feud, did little to lift the stain.

The late Seventies and early Eighties were in any event a time of contraction for the paramilitary groups, as the general Protestant population came to feel less insecure. The British Labour administration of the time took a tougher law-and-order line, the fortunes of the IRA seemed to be fading, and as a result fewer Protestants saw the point of paramilitarism.

As a result, both membership and the amount of killing fell away sharply. For a time, deaths averaged only around a dozen a year, but the mid and late Eighties brought an IRA revival and the perception that nationalists were making political gains through the Anglo-Irish agreement.

This brought an upsurge which resulted in a loyalist killing rate of around 40 victims a year since 1991 - for the first time actually overtaking the death toll of the IRA.

The loyalist ceasefire therefore goes sharply against recent trends, for it has become clear that there is no shortage of support and toleration for their activities, and certainly no shortage of recruits.

Unemployment is high in many of the most hardline Protestant areas, such as the Shankill Road. Many youths in these districts have clearly felt they have no stake in society and nothing to lose by becoming involved in violence; and there has certainly been a widespread feeling that violence pays and gets results.

A year ago a senior Presbyterian churchman said privately: '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.'

Paramilitary loyalism is more splintered than the IRA, being less centralised and more based on strong local personalities who run their own areas. The question will therefore arise of whether all the different elements will accept the ceasefire.

(Photograph omitted)