Will loyalists hold their fire?

Fringe and mainstream Protestant parties can each help to avoid a spiral of despair, argues Paul Bew
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The Independent Online
Now that Gerry Adams has declared "the peace process is over", is retaliation by the loyalist paramilitaries the inevitable next step in the spiral back down to despair? Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, rightly insisted: "Retaliation would be an absolute catastrophe for everybody." He also praised the "mature and responsible" leadership of the loyalists - a phrase that would have been unimaginable before the ceasefires.

The loyalist paramilitaries were, after all, responsible for many of the worst crimes of the "Troubles". Unlike the IRA, they never seemed able to provide any superficially acceptable "political" rationale for their actions; their crimes often reflected only the base, cruel and sectarian passions of the most socially disadvantaged segments of Protestant society.

Both communities in Northern Ireland are highly educated, yet the loyally paramilitaries - unlike the republicans - never tended to attract university graduates. The Protestant grammar schools, which have proud military traditions in terms of service in the British Army during wartime, have contributed very little to today's Ulster Volunteer Force or Ulster Defence Association. All the more surprising, then, that since the ceasefire these groupings have produced what one senior Government figure has described as "quality Protestant working-class political leadership."

Indeed, senior republicans were surprised when the loyalists declared a ceasefire, six weeks after their own. They had expected a mindless killing spree; instead, men such as Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party - which has an insight into the thinking of the UDA, and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party - which has a similar role with respect to the UVF, have become serious political players.

These fringe parties have been keen not to allow the Ulster Unionist Party to dictate the pace on peace proposals. And they have been quicker to engage with republicans in debate and discussion. Even a few days before the Canary Wharf bomb, Mr McMichael took part in a pathbreaking television debate with Pat McGeown of Sinn Fein. And Mr Ervine had his first meeting with David Trimble last Friday. That was an important moment, because the Protestant middle class, which largely supports the Ulster Unionist Party, has a sniffy detestation for the activities of Protestant paramilitaries. David Trimble, the UUP leader, believes the loyalists missed a trick when they failed last year to help solve the decommissioning stalemate by themselves offering to hand over arms. After all, loyalists do not have the same ideological hang-ups about recognising the legitimacy of the state which have so hampered republicans on the decommissioning issue.

Nevertheless, the rather limited hopes for peace which remain depend largely on the ability of men like McMichael and Ervine to prevent an outbreak of violence from angry and impatient loyalist paramilitaries. Unlike Gerry Adams, they have not yet lost control of the key decision- making process - Mr Adams is at the moment a kind of constitutional monarch within republicanism, a much-revered figure but deficient in real political power. If McMichael and Ervine end up in the same condition, the game is really up.

So far, these men have certainly coped rather better than the republicans with the inevitable political frustrations and shocks of the peace process. When the green-tinted framework document on the future of Northern Ireland was published in February 1995, there was widespread Unionist dismay. The loyalists claimed that they could not have brought about their ceasefire had they known what might be in the framework document - because of the significant concessions it proposed to make to nationalist sentiment. The apparently wide-ranging schemes for North-South harmonisation in the framework document continue to arouse Protestant fears. It will greatly help matters, for instance, when the British and Irish governments take the trouble to explain to the worried people of the Shankill Road precisely what is meant by the harmonisation of the social welfare systems, North and South. Despite this, David Ervine felt able to say calmly of the framework document, after publication: "This is the worst that we have to fear."

We should not really be so surprised by such relative political sophistication. While the history of the Protestant working class is heavily marked by anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist prejudice, there have always been other, more constructive social and political traditions. The most significant wasseen in the expansion of the Northern Ireland Labour Party after 1958. At its height, in 1962, the NILP vote in 16 Belfast constituencies was 58,811, while the total Unionist vote for the same constituencies was 69,096. The NILP, which had both Catholic and Protestant activists, was torn apart by the stresses of the Troubles. But it left behind some culture of reason and rationality within the Unionist working class, and David Ervine in particular is proud of his family associations with Labour.

Yesterday, some loyalists argued that their peaceful stand should be rewarded by inclusion in all-party talks (minus Sinn Fein). Certainly one way to restrain loyalist violence is to keep the fringe parties firmly within the political process. John Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party, also argued that a settlement had to be based on the agreement of the peaceful, constitutional parties first; this was, after all, the conventional wisdom up to 1993.

Is it possible to envisage a deal without Sinn Fein? The Dublin government seems undecided, but there is no doubt where the deepest political instincts of the Irish prime minister John Bruton lie, and it's not with propping up the IRA. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP is clear that the republican movement has placed itself outside the nationalist consensus, especially on the issues of consent and peaceful means - although his leader, John Hume, seems more reluctant to face up to the implications of this fact.

Above all, it is up to the leaders of mainstream Unionism to sustain this nationalist consensus. If it proves impossible to bring Sinn Fein back in to dialogue, David Trimble may well be prepared to offer compromises that would serve to bind together the constitutionalist parties. But the fringe loyalists also have their part to play. People should not forget that loyalist paramilitary killing, which was about 10 per cent of the total on the eve of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, then rose to the point where it exceeded that of the republicans in the period immediately preceding the ceasefire. This dramatic rise was fuelled by fears of a sell-out. If the two governments now act in a way which reinforces stability, then perhaps we can be spared the worst of some of the horrors which otherwise await.

The writer is Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast.