The mad dogs of Ulster have only nihilism left to chew on

Loyalist gangs are turning Belfast's Protestant community into the real losers

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The Protestants of Northern Ireland are facing an identity crisis, nowhere more so than in the Shankill area, once described as "the hub of the British Empire" and now riven by an internecine feud between rival loyalist gangs which has left three dead.

The Protestants of Northern Ireland are facing an identity crisis, nowhere more so than in the Shankill area, once described as "the hub of the British Empire" and now riven by an internecine feud between rival loyalist gangs which has left three dead.

The old order has changed. Unionism is now fragmented and confused. The Orange Order, through the stupidity and bigotry of much of its leadership, is a decaying husk. Its "great stand" at Drumcree is little more than a sick, grotesque joke evoking a sense of shame among the majority of decent Protestants.

Over the past three decades, the population of Greater Shankill has been reduced from more than 70,000 to just over 20,000. It is the victim of the Troubles and of redevelopment. The engineering works and the mills are gone, and the great shipyard is a shadow of what it once was. An area where people were once proud of their Britishness and their Protestant work ethic is no longer sure of itself. The flags, banners and murals plead for identity. But what do these people want? And who wants them?

It is a little easier for the Protestant and unionist farmer with the 100 or so acres that his family has farmed for centuries. He has a clear sense of place - and that is the soil he stands on. In essence, all is unchanged.

For Shankill, though, it is a fight for survival. But just as it was wrong to demonise the entire nationalist community of West Belfast when two army corporals were murdered in such a barbaric fashion at the funeral of Kevin Brady in 1988, so too it would be wrong to demonise the entire Shankill community in the aftermath of this latest bloody feud.

The violence of recent days is to do with differing attitudes to the Good Friday Agreement and the identity crisis facing Northern Ireland's loyalist community. Although racketeering has long been a feature of working-class loyalist areas, it was not the central ingredient that sparked the most recent feud. But what these latest events do illustrate is the growing sense of nihilism eating away at the heart of working-class loyalism.

Why do I, a former republican from Kerry, in the deep south-west of the Irish Republic, claim to have any understanding of loyalism/ unionism? The reason is straightforward. After I left the IRA at the age of 19, in disgust at its sectarianism, I fell in love with and married a Glasgow Presbyterian whose family was connected to the Orange Order. That provided my first insight into the community I had helped to terrorise.

Later, after 1988 and after I had handed myself in for my teenage crimes, I spent eight years in prison, most of them in close company with loyalists, many from Belfast's Shankill Road. One good friend was a life-long companion of Johnny Adair, the Ulster Freedom Fighters' leader who was arrested on Tuesday night following the recent killings. During those years I lived on the friendliest terms with countless loyalist prisoners as well as prison officers and officials, who though law-abiding, were the products of working-class loyalism.

Since my release from prison, I have had a great deal of contact with the Orange Order, different unionist parties and indeed loyalist paramilitaries, in an effort to try to further understand and shore up the Belfast agreement - which I have supported from the outset even though I was never carried away with that Panglossian nonsense that has been promulgated by politicians and commentators who should have known better.

Both the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), respectively the political wings of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters), were early supporters of the peace process - the PUP/UVF fervently so. For many years their politics have been strongly, if crudely and rather romantically, left-of-centre: "Clause Four" is still enshrined in the PUP's constitution. They are best known through their media-friendly representatives, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson.

As time has gone by, their support for the agreement and their election to the Northern Ireland Assembly has provoked a backlash against what many loyalists see as a sell-out to a republican-dominated agenda. In recent months the parties have been derided by fellow loyalists in Shankill as the "peace-people".

While imprisoned and wanting to be free, Adair seemed to support the peace process, but in truth he never has. Once released, he forged an alliance with the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a criminal UVF splinter group which regards Catholics as little better than vermin.

Adair and the LVF began a series of attacks on the houses of Catholics and members of the PUP/UVF. From my knowledge of the UVF, I am aware that although its leadership was furious at these developments, it did not want to get drawn into a feud, being all too aware of the implications for the future of the group's elected representatives in the Assembly.

In the small, paranoid world of loyalism, with its long-standing enmity among groups and individuals, there was only ever going to be one outcome. The larger unionist family itself, without recourse to guns and bombs, has been locked in a vicious struggle between the supporters and opponents of the agreement.

A friend of mine walked along the nationalist Falls Road last Sunday, a stone's throw from Shankill. Children were playing on the streets, flags flew in support of Armagh - Ulster's Gaelic football champions - who were playing in the All Ireland semi-final. The mood was relaxed and cheerful.

On to the Shankill Road and into a "war zone" - where the mood is fearful, anxious, aggressive and truculent. How bewildering that must be for the decent majority who try with increasing difficulty to lead normal lives. They see a confident, even triumphalist, nationalism, increasingly dominated by Sinn Fein, some of whose leading figures were responsible for the worst sectarian atrocities against their community. They see the symbols of their Britishness stripped away from them; they believe the British establishment neither understands nor wants them; and they know the British and Dublin chattering classes despise them.

A young unemployed male in Dublin's inner city knows that for him the Celtic Tiger is a sick joke, but the government is his government, Dublin is his football team, the tricolour is his flag and "The Soldier's Song" his national anthem. These things, at least, are all embracing and unchanging.

The young unemployed male on the Shankill Road enjoys no such "comfort blanket". For him, Dublin appears to have joint sovereignty over his country. His national anthem is played only when the nationalists permit it, Martin McGuinness is Minister for Education, and republican ministers refuse to allow the Union flag on government buildings. So when the likes of Adair tell him it's all the fault of "the taigs" that the UVF are selling out and that they must hit back or they will be trampled on, the answer is all too often likely to be, "yes, I'm with you, boss".

The young of the Shankill area have inherited a bitter legacy. We must help them to find a non-violent way forward, one with pride in the best of their traditions. Otherwise the Belfast agreement won't be worth the paper it is written on.

* Sean O'Callaghan is the author of 'The Informer', published by Bantam Press.

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