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Last Updated: Monday, 31 October 2005, 16:12 GMT
LVF's short but turbulent history
Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland Correspondent

A loyalist paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, says it is to stand down in response to the IRA move to decommission arms in September. Kevin Connolly examines the background and implications.

Murdered LVF leader Billy Wright
LVF founder Billy Wright was shot dead in the Maze prison in 1997

The short but turbulent history of the Loyalist Volunteer Force mixed bouts of savage blood-letting with bizarre and unpredictable political gestures.

The organisation was created when a faction of the UVF in Portadown rejected the decision of their leaders in Belfast to declare a ceasefire in 1994.

Under the leadership of the local paramilitary warlord Billy Wright, the LVF committed itself to the traditional loyalist belief that the nationalist community could be terrified into demanding an end to IRA violence by a campaign of random murder directed against it.

UVF 'wary'

The UVF leadership was furious at Billy Wright's act of rebellion - but they were wary of his reputation for savage, clinical efficiency as a killer and also of his popularity.

When the UVF tried to order him out of Ulster, thousands of Protestants turned out at a rally called to support him. The seeds were laid for future conflict between the UVF and the LVF.

Few take the statement at face value - it's much more likely that the LVF was forced to disband to secure the UVF's agreement to a truce
BBC's Kevin Connolly

Billy Wright was killed in 1997 - shot dead inside the Maze prison by republican paramilitaries armed with a smuggled handgun - and the LVF lost the focus which his cold-eyed fanaticism had given it.

But it remained an unpredictable and dangerous organisation.

Even though it had no political wing, and no clear political agenda, it became the first paramilitary group to decommission any weapons late in 1998.

The gesture was meaningless - the guns it handed in for destruction were old, and formed only a small part of its arsenal; the LVF remained armed and ready for violence and no convincing explanation for its act of decommissioning was ever offered.

It did not confine itself to killing Catholics either. There were feuds with both of the two larger and older loyalist organisations, the UVF and the UDA.

Often it seemed that disputes over the proceeds of drug-dealing or racketeering lay behind these bouts of violence, but always in the background was the ill-feeling between the UVF and the smaller, more violent grouping which had broken away in the original dispute.

This summer that ill-feeling boiled over into a new feud and this time the whisper was that the UVF was determined to wipe out its smaller rival once and for all.

There were four killings - all by the UVF - and twice UVF gangs moved into loyalist estates and forced families associated with the LVF to leave their homes.

The LVF tried but failed to kill in retaliation, a telling indication of where the balance of power between the two organisations now lay.

The last of the killings was carried out in mid-August and, since then, Protestant churchmen and community leaders have been conducting secret talks aimed at finding some sort of resolution.

Political gesture

When the breakthrough came, it brought with it another of those bizarre political gestures from the LVF.

Within hours of the news that the loyalist feud was over came an LVF statement that it was "standing down" its "military units" in response to a similar move made over the course of the summer by the IRA.

Few take the statement at face value - it's much more likely that the LVF was forced to disband to secure the UVF's agreement to a truce and is simply trying to cloak a moment of humiliation in the language of grand strategy.

So it would be a mistake to expect any direct or immediate political movement to follow the LVF's gesture, although that doesn't mean that its statement has no meaning.

In referring to the IRA statement, the LVF is providing a reminder that if the main republican paramilitary grouping really has given up political violence for good then it will have changed the rules of the political game in Northern Ireland, and changed them permanently.

Loyalist groups after all have always argued that their very existence was justified by the threat of IRA violence and, if that threat is gone for good, they are either going to have to come up with some new justifications or in some way match the IRA's move.

The LVF statement brings to an end another of those familiar rounds of murderous instability with which loyalists are so familiar - it also leads us to an intriguing question about just what we can expect from the other, larger loyalist groups in the coming weeks and months.

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