From the Irish World, 9 September 2005:
In this column last week, I suggested that loyalist paramilitaries were no longer capable of playing the kind of political role that they did in 1912 or 1974. It seems I was too optimistic.
There were conscious echoes of the past last Monday, when the newly-formed Love Ulster campaign unloaded 200,000 copies of the Shankill Mirror newspaper at Larne Harbour.
The event was intended to evoke memories of the Larne gun-running of 1914, when the UVF landed 30,000 German rifles to be used in resisting Home Rule for Ireland.
On that occasion, The British Government caved in to an open act of rebellion, and the unionist leaders were ultimately rewarded with Government posts themselves. Within a year, UVF founder Sir Edward Carson had become Attorney-General, the chief legal advisor to the Government. This was the moment when the gun was brought into Irish politics, paving the way for Easter 1916 and all that followed.
Those at Larne last week may not have been smuggling guns, but the event was alarming in other ways. Alongside representatives from the DUP, victims groups and the Orange Order, senior figures from the UVF and UDA were in attendance; this at a time when sectarian and racist attacks are increasing, and when the UVF and LVF are engaged in a bloody feud.
The newspapers being landed carried the headline ‘Ulster at Crisis point’, but the launch Love Ulster campaign arguably exposed the real crisis, the one within unionism.
When the UUP was the leading unionist party, it was always able to claim that any concessions to nationalism would strengthen Ian Paisley. Now that the DUP are the dominant force, the loyalists are the only bogeyman left.
That fact was obscured by until recently because of the pressure being placed on republicans by the two Governments. That pressure ultimately succeeded in securing major concessions, with the decision to stand down the IRA and decommission its weapons.
Once that happened, however, it was inevitable that demilitarisation would flow from it. Instead of preparing its supporters for that reality, the DUP chose to oppose measures it could not stop, and to join those who, for various reasons, were hyping the inevitable swing of the pendulum towards republicans after the IRA statement as a surrender by the British Government.
It was this failure of leadership that allowed a loyalist backed last-ditch campaign against the (non-existent) prospect of an imminent united Ireland to appear credible. It has also contributed to the environment which has seen an increase in sectarian attacks.
It is ironic but perhaps not surprising that the decision to stand down the IRA seems to have led to an increase in loyalist activity. It has often been said that loyalist violence is primarily reactive. In the main, however, what it reacts to is not republican violence, but the threat of political advances by the nationalist community.
Whether it be Home Rule in 1912, civil rights in 1969, Sunningdale in 1974 or the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1986, loyalists have always reacted with violence or the threat violence, which has often been enough to move the British Government.
At all of those key crisis moments the supposed distinction between loyalism and mainstream unionism broke down. That is what makes the Love Ulster campaign so ominous.
In the past, the British Government has shown that it is prepared to give in to violence, when that violence comes from unionism. It did so in 1914 with terrible consequences. If there was one good thing about last Monday’s episode it was the reminder that it is not only republicans who need to act if the guns is to be taken out of Irish politics.