Judged by terrorists

Threats to shoot a maverick loyalist put peace at risk, says David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
A lot of loyalists who meet Billy Wright, Northern Ireland's best- known Protestant paramilitant, find him slightly disconcerting in person, not because of his fearsome reputation but because of his attachment to religion.

Most loyalist paramilitary people tend to be, if not actually godless, then tough men who are not regular church-goers and are more often to be found in drinking dens than mission halls. Wright is most unusual because he speaks, and writes, about God.

According to one loyalist: "He has this streak of religious fundamentalism in him, always mentioning God. He has a bible in one hand, and then at the same time he's preaching death."

He also has a willingness to go against the big battalions of loyalism, a readiness to have his picture taken and give interviews, and a seeming disregard for the fact that those who mix paramilitarism and celebrity often end up incarcerated or assassinated.

At one level, his decision to defy the big groups - the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, who, playing god themselves, told him this week to leave or face death - is basically an issue of internal paramilitary discipline. Some observers shrug and say, it's a brutal world in there, and you either do what you're told or bale out.

But at other levels, this is potentially a highly de-stabilising affair, and one which many worry could accelerate what they fear is already happening: a steady drift back to armed conflict. This business could, at worst, lead to a lot of shooting, a deterioration of the already dangerously charged atmosphere, and it may have far-reaching political repercussions.

It need not necessarily do so, for some episodes of violence can take place in hermetically sealed compartments. This year, for example, five people have been killed in a feud within the Irish National Liberation Army. The feud seems destined to drag on without end within the notoriously fissiparous group, but barely affects the outside world.

The Billy Wright affair, however, is bound to have wider implications, for it has become intertwined with the overall political scene. The shape of political activity could depend on it; so indeed could the maintenance of the loyalist ceasefire, which has held since October 1994.

The fact that the ceasefire has survived so well has been one of the biggest of the many surprises thrown up in recent years. The 1990s saw the UVF and UDA go on the rampage for several years, inflicting more casualties than the IRA. Loyalist gunmen attacked many members of Sinn Fein, but also carried out indiscriminate attacks on Catholic pubs and betting shops, sometimes killing half a dozen people at a time.

When the IRA went on ceasefire, in August 1994, some thought that the loyalists might keep on going. Instead, not only did they stop killing but many of them took to politics with great enthusiasm and indeed skill. The image of the working-class loyalist as a gunman in a balaclava faded, to be replaced by David Ervine, Gary McMichael and other fledgling politicians in neat suits.

The impact of the new para-paramilitary parties, the Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democratic party, was extraordinary. Their evident attachment to peace, desire for dialogue and easy informality made them media darlings. They were feted in Washington and Dublin.

During the republican ceasefire, Gerry Adams said of the IRA: "They haven't gone away, you know." The same was true of the loyalists with the balaclavas: the UVF and UDA stayed in existence. Like the IRA, they kept active, carrying out punishment beatings and occasional robberies, with sections of them dabbling in criminality such as drugs. Like the IRA, they refused to de- commission any weapons.

Even when the peace process period did not deliver everything the loyalists had hoped for, there were appreciably fewer stresses and strains within their organisations than, for example, within the IRA. Billy Wright seems to have been fairly isolated in believing the ceasefire was a bad idea, for there was no significant war party pushing for a return to war.

The election to talks earlier this year brought the new loyalist parties a respectable vote that gave them a place at the multi-party talks. There, according to most of the other participants, their attitude has been constructive and open-minded.

One participant said: "Their presence is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, having them there means there's less chance of violence on the streets. Then it also means that Paisley and company can't use the blood-curdling threats that they might otherwise use."

The people who have had the greatest problems in accepting the new loyalist approach have been the established Protestant parties, the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists. Some leading politicians who have resorted to sabre-rattling to help build their careers have been annoyed to find the men with the sabres at the same table, and annoyed too to hear them talking peace rather than war.

The two main parties have this week embarked on a campaign to have the smaller loyalist parties expelled from the talks on the grounds that they should not be expected to negotiate with the political spokesmen of organisations which issue public death threats.

This is clearly a strong argument. The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party (UDP) are as yet, to use an old Irish description, only slightly constitutional parties; one of the major arguments for allowing them to stay in talks is that involving them in the political processes will help gradually wean them away from violence.

Most in the talks believe the new parties are serious about politics, yet their parent organisations are resorting to the bad old ways to settle their problems. The proposition that they should feel free to threaten to kill someone in defence of their ceasefire is clearly of the most dubious morality.

But then the position of the larger Unionist parties may not be as moral and as high-minded as it appears at first sight. Senior figures in those parties have long wanted the loyalists expelled from the talks, not because of some purist fastidiousness about threats but because they regard them as political rivals - rivals, moreover, whose over-conciliatory line tends to undermine a united Protestant approach.

Furthermore, as the loyalists point out in private with some bitterness, mainstream Unionism contains a number of senior figures who have themselves in the past dabbled in paramilitarism and resorted to the threat of force. "This is the pot calling the kettle black," said one loyalist source. "They want us out of the talks and I really think some of them want a return to war."

This is the point where the Wright affair has intersected with national politics. Northern Ireland, in the wake of the disastrous marching season, is a tense and dangerous place at the moment, with pessimism and apprehension rife: today is the second anniversary of the announcement of the IRA ceasefire, and the contrast with that time of great hope is stark.

The few silver linings in a bleak landscape include the facts that the talks are scheduled to re-start on 9 September, that the IRA has not started a new campaign in Northern Ireland, and that the loyalist ceasefire has held to date.

Ceremonial expulsion from the talks would slam the political doors on the loyalists and almost inevitably send them off looking for an alternative direction: that might very well be the abandonment of politics and a reversion to terrorism. It is easy to see how that could spark off the IRA and bring about a complete unravelling of what remains of the peace process.

On the other hand, even many of those who wish the PUP and UDP well will be uneasy with the idea of allowing them to stay in talks if the Wright death threat is not withdrawn. And if he is actually killed, then the loyalists will surely be ejected. Billy Wright's High Noon comes at midnight tonight.

The question of how to deal with the loyalists is similar to the issue of how to treat Sinn Fein and the IRA, and in the final analysis, it comes down to a view of human nature. Some will feel that one-time terrorists will never change their spots and should be politically shunned, and that any ceasefire ever declared by them will be a sham and a deception.

Others will feel that a transition from terrorism to politics is a possibility, and will be prepared to tolerate an evolutionary phase that could contain violent steps backward as well as political steps forward. The loyalist organisations have themselves lost patience with Billy Wright and decreed his exile: the body politic must now decide whether to treat the loyalists themselves in the same way.