Leading Article: A murderous loyalism

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The Independent Online
THE IRA is generally, and correctly, identified as the chief source of murder and violence in Northern Ireland, and as the main reason for the presence of British troops in the province. For that reason, the crimes of Protestant terrorists - such as Sunday night's murder of a Catholic snooker club owner and his son near Dungannon, the first sectarian killings of the new year - tend to receive less attention and sometimes appear to be less roundly condemned. It seems to be feared that to equate or compare so-called 'loyalist' violence with the IRA's in some way diminishes the gravity of the latter.

That may be a natural anxiety, but it is not logical. It should be possible to condemn the one without in any way minimising the other. The Northern Ireland Office does so very successfully, even though members of the security forces bulk large among the IRA's victims, whereas those of Protestant gunmen are typically Roman Catholic civilians. It is admirably even-handed and robust in its condemnation of all forms of sectarian murder.

The figures alone emphasise that republican terrorists have overall been the biggest killers. Since the present troubles began in the late Sixties, the IRA is reckoned to have accounted for around 1,740 victims, more than twice as many as loyalist groups. But the rate of killing by the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force has quickened considerably: in the past two years they have claimed 80 victims, more than the IRA. The acceleration is attributed to the signing in 1985 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which, to the disgust of many Protestants, acknowledged that the Republic of Ireland had a legitimate interest in Ulster's affairs.

That leads to another difficulty in discussing UDA/UVF terrorism: whereas the IRA is seen as the terrorist arm of a political organisation, Sinn Fein, the UDA and UVF are on their own. The IRA's so-called political agenda is bankrupt: to claim to use violence to get British troops out when the effect is the precise opposite is merely to add hypocrisy to criminality. Loyalist violence does not even bother to dress itself up in political clothes. Its twin aims are to kill off or delay any form of accommodation between the legitimate political parties and the governments in London and Dublin; and to demonstrate its ruthlessness, the better to enrich itself (as does the IRA) through protection rackets and the like. The IRA is a political organisation that became criminal; the UDA/UVF are criminals who became quasi-political.

As both must realise, their relationship is symbiotic. In their own diseased minds, the crimes of the other side help to justify their own, a view no doubt shared by more bigoted members of the public on either side of the sectarian divide.

The effect of UDA crimes on public opinion in Britain itself is more subtle. Faced with IRA bombs in London or Manchester, the reaction tends to be: 'To hell with the IRA. We refuse to be dismayed.' With news of a loyalist crime such as the slaughter of Catholics in a Belfast betting shop, the reaction tends to be: 'A plague on both sides - bring back the troops.' A Mori opinion poll in October found 61 per cent in favour of withdrawing British forces immediately or 'within a pre-set period'. The terrorism of the UVF and UDA is thus no less counter-productive than that of the IRA.