The assertion that 'violence works' now passes almost unchallenged among the Protestant working class - the section of society which turns out an apparently never-ending stream of recruits to the paramilitary groups.
These young people believe implicitly that Sinn Fein and the IRA have made advances, that those advances have been achieved by violence, and that they can best be opposed by Protestant violence.
The doubling of the loyalist killing rate in recent years has not taken place in a vacuum, for it is merely a violent manifestation of a general Unionist angst and sense that events are moving against the Protestant community.
Various factors - historical, political, economic, and psychological - help to explain why the loyalist death rate has risen so dramatically, from about six a year in the mid-1980s to last year's total of almost 50. But rational analysis can miss out one of the most striking features of this form of activity - the sheer sectarian hatred which characterises so much of the extreme Protestant violence.
The paramilitary groups have an almost completely tribal perspective of the Northern Ireland conflict. The Catholic population is regarded as foreign and hostile. Anti-Catholicism is a constant; the violence rises and falls according to the loyalist perception of whether Catholics and nationalists are making progress.
The claim that a republican meeting was going on in the Loughinisland pub was so ludicrous that no one is expected to believe it. The basic fact was that republicans had killed two Protestants on the Shankill Road in Belfast, and a tribal imperative dictated that Catholics had to be killed in reprisal. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army were on the alert in and around Belfast, so the gunmen went out of town and wreaked their vengeance on an obscure country pub.
Loyalist violence has been a constant of the troubles, but its peaks and troughs have been shaped by the general level of Protestant insecurity. Thus the first loyalist street backlash followed the successful Catholic civil rights marches in the 1960s which were attracting widespread sympathy.
The first upsurge of loyalist killings, in mid-1972, followed the abolition of the Protestant-dominated Stormont parliament. By the mid-1980s loyalist violence had fallen to its lowest level, claiming only 20 victims in a three-year period. But since the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which was interpreted as a victory for nationalists and a defeat for the Unionist cause, the killings have increased.
This rise demonstrates that loyalists take violent exception to perceived IRA successes and to moves which are seen as favouring constitutional nationalists. Loyalist anger has recently been vented on the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party, with attacks on the homes of SDLP politicians.
Protestant angst has increased in the past year as the British government and the republicans have become publicly engaged in the peace process. The extreme Protestants greatly resent the fact that Sinn Fein and the IRA have held centre stage in the political arena and they believe that the IRA campaign will not end without significant concessions being made to the republicans.
There are other reasons for the upsurge. Internal reorganisations of some groups have in some cases brought particularly militant elements to the fore. Economic and demographic changes have had profoundly unsettling effects on the Unionist psyche. A significant increase in the size of the Catholic population has led to unsettling territorial changes. More Protestants are moving towards the east as the Catholic majority grows in the west. More Protestants are emigrating. Unemployment is running high in some of the most hardline Protestant areas.
Many young people in these districts feel they have no stake in society and nothing to lose by becoming involved in violence; and there is a widespread feeling that violence pays and gets results. A former moderator of the Presbyterian church recently 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.
'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.'
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