During the Troubles years, loyalist prisoners' groups used to gather money from businesses and in social clubs under the slogan, 'Their only crime was loyalty'.
That was inevitably reversed for comic effect. On the BBC series Give My Head Peace, one of the characters solemnly pronounced, 'Our only loyalty was crime'.
That old joke seems like the pure, unvarnished truth for the rump loyalist organisations which still hang around like a bad smell more than 20 years after the Combined Loyalist Military Command declared its ceasefire.
When gangs terrorised Larne last weekend, nobody offered a political explanation. It was the result of a fight, a power trip, said the police.
This sounded more like the rationale advanced for an outbreak of football hooliganism than for an underground army with a political objective.
Thankfully, guns weren't produced in Larne, but when they are, we usually learn that the motive was a dispute over territory, drugs, or money. Occasionally, it is a matter of sexual jealousy.
It seems likely that these organisations will remain as a local mafia. They have crossed the generation gap and are packed with ceasefire soldiers, who joined after, or just before, the October 1994 CLMC ceasefire.
The UVF was always more cohesive than the UDA, but even in that organisation there are signs of fragmentation.
The general picture is that a few old hands remain, but power is slipping away from them and brigades are being run like fiefdoms.
Often they are the equivalent of mafia families, dividing out territory and rackets between them.
These sorts of organisations exist in many societies and the loyalist paramilitaries are not the only such gangs in Northern Ireland.
What is imperative is that they be denied any sense of political legitimacy, or influence.
In Sicily, 50 or more years ago, some politicians formed informal alliances with mafia groups to deliver votes in hard-to-reach, deprived areas. Sections of the police also used them to control petty crime.
That created a monster, which ended up killing police officers and politicians. It could happen here, too – we have already seen how sections of the UVF sought to capitalise on the flags protests.
Unionist parties should be very careful of voter registration drives by paramilitary-linked groups. The push must be to decommission such groups and stop them either recruiting, or rearming – not co-opt them into the political process.