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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Loyalist feud could threaten peace
Soldiers patrol as tensions rise in Belfast
Soldiers patrol as tensions rise in Belfast
BBC NI's political editor Stephen Grimason assesses the implications of an escalating feud between the two major loyalist paramilitary groups in the province.

At first sight the feud between the UFF and UVF would appear not to directly threaten the peace process.

It could be argued, and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson has already gone some way down this road, that it is apolitical thuggery with racketeering and drug dealing at its core.

But the last 30 years in Northern Ireland have shown just how easily a feud can spill over and seriously injure the body politic.


In past loyalist feuds the point has often been reached when a sick calculation is made by the combatants that they can prove they are better loyalists than their opponents by killing Catholics

For a start, most unionists are now deeply sceptical about the Good Friday Agreement.

And it will not be lost on them that a number of high profile loyalist prisoners released early under its terms, are believed to be up to their eyes in the current violence.

Both the agreement and the wider peace process have been seen to be fairly robust.

But a gradual leeching away of public confidence would be something the government would be keen to avoid, not least because forthcoming elections could present the anti-agreement unionists with a chance to lay siege to First Minister David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party.

There is, however, a more sinister problem waiting in the wings.

In past loyalist feuds, the point has often been reached when a sick calculation is made by the combatants that they can prove they are better loyalists than their opponents by killing Catholics.

Under that sort of provocation, the circumstances could arise where republican paramilitaries would hit back and in the ensuing vicious downward spiral, the whole peace process would be subjected to enormous pressure.


The biggest political loser in all of this seems to be the Ulster Democratic Party

For that reason, Sinn Fein spokesmen are already beginning to warn of the dire consequences of a continuing loyalist feud.

On one reading, however, this is not a feud but a takeover bid by the UFF; an attempt to establish itself as the force majeure in loyalism.

It is pretty much the same way the Provisional IRA took over from the Official IRA in 1972.

At that time many figures in the Official IRA wished they had strangled the new movement at birth and the argument is not lost on the UVF today.

The biggest political loser in all of this seems to be the Ulster Democratic Party.

Its association with the UFF has always electorally hobbled its candidates to the point where there are no UDP members in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The party could well now implode.

See also:

22 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
In pictures: Belfast's tense streets
21 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
Troops back on Belfast streets
21 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
Man killed in 'loyalist feud' shooting
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