Tribal killers' hatred drowns out any doubt: David McKittrick finds loyalist claims about 'legitimate targets' are a disguise for the murder of innocent people

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THE Greysteel massacre has again illustrated one of the most striking features of loyalist terrorists: that for sheer hot-blooded, vengeful savagery, they can often leave the IRA standing.

The IRA uses murder as a cold-blooded and clinically calculated means to a political end; loyalist assassins often leave the unmistakable impression that they are men who enjoy their work.

That 'work' has left more than 900 people dead during the Troubles. The fact that the vast majority of these have been uninvolved Catholics demonstrates that loyalist paramilitary groups define the entire Catholic population as the enemy and hence 'legitimate' targets.

For these groups, who see their basic mission as attacking Catholics, killing someone with republican connections is a bonus. For public consumption they often claim their victims are republican activists, but at inquest after inquest over the years, Royal Ulster Constabulary detectives have testified that the 'IRA intelligence officer' killed was a man with no paramilitary connections.

After an incident such as Saturday night's attack, no such pretence is possible. In cases like this, the loyalists often describe their targets as 'members of the pan-nationalist front' or the 'nationalist electorate'; but these are preposterously grandiose synonyms for the Catholic population as a whole.

Nearly all members of the violent Protestant groups are drawn from the loyalist lumpenproletariat living in exclusively Protestant areas, though many say that before becoming involved in paramilitarism they had Catholic acquaintances and even girlfriends.

Their view of the Catholic population is completely tribal. One reformed loyalist terrorist, who nearly 20 years ago took part in an attack which killed six people in a Catholic bar, described his attitude then in the following terms: 'Any doubts were drowned by hatred. We dehumanised the other side and branded them animals. We didn't think in terms of them being people. If we couldn't get the IRA, we would have to slaughter members of the Catholic community who, after all, seemed to support them.

'I had got involved in a number of sectarian riots and fights, beating up a few Catholics. As a volunteer, I thought I was doing good and defending my people against the IRA, who were totally undermining the Northern Ireland state. Something drastic had to be done.

'When I heard the number killed in the bar, I couldn't believe I was responsible for something so drastic. The going rate was usually one or two dead, and that somehow gave the situation a sense of normality. I will carry the memory of what happened that night in 1974 until the day I die. After all these years of paramilitaries and prisons, a sad reality I've faced is that people must often be hurt or killed before the value of human life is realised.'

In the early 1970s, groups such as the Ulster Defence Association contained tens of thousands of members; today they have shrunk to perhaps a tenth of that size. Much of the Protestant population at large has little time for groups which have been responsible for appalling murders and whose leaders have gained a reputation for lining their own pockets with the proceeds of racketeering.

But, at the same time, there have been worrying signs in recent years that the level of approval, or at least tolerance, of these groups has risen steadily. Noting this recently, a senior Protestant clergyman said: 'The view is that democratic politics and political negotiation don't get anywhere, the only thing the powers-that-be understand is violence. Young people feel they have nothing to lose - they have no stake in society, no motivation. That vacuum is being filled by the paramilitaries, who give them an alleged cause, a purpose for living.'

Protestant violence such as the Greysteel attack clearly does no service to the image of the Unionist cause in Britain and elsewhere. It helps ensure that the IRA will plan more retaliatory attacks on loyalist targets in the future.

Had loyalist groups opted for inactivity in the wake of the Shankill bombing, the pressure of local and international opprobrium would have remained on the IRA. But such considerations never seem to weigh with the loyalist terrorists. Over and over again, they demonstrate that they are motivated not by political considerations but by sheer sectarianism, and that they are ever prepared to squander moral advantage to indulge ancient hatreds.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Northern Ireland's toll of people killed by republicans and loyalists ----------------------------------------------------------------- Year Republicans Loyalists 1986 41 17 1987 69 19 1988 62 20 1989 40 21 1990 46 19 1991 47 42 1992 33 38 1993* 30 44 *1993 figure includes the Greysteel shootings.

Republicans category refers to both IRA and other minor republican groups. Deaths in Britain are excluded. -----------------------------------------------------------------

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