Belfast Telegraph

Bleak future for youths who flunk history test

The UVF's campaign against the work of the Historical Enquiries Team is threatening to condemn a new generation of loyalists to repeat past mistakes, says Malachi O'Doherty

How cynical do you have to be to want to bring the Troubles back? The east Belfast UVF, which is credited with a virtual coup against the Agreement and, therefore, against its own parent organisation, has enough experience to know where a repeat of last week's violence will lead.

It will lead to young men in its own ranks debasing themselves in pointless violence and having to live with the shame of how they have behaved.

If any of those young men think that is a small thing, easily shrugged off, then they should talk to some of their drink-soaked, pill-popping elders about depression, guilt and suicide.

It leads to those young men getting killed, or going to jail.

It might be exhilarating to be jumping on police Land Rovers and swiping at their armoured windscreens with sticks, to virtually no practical effect, but when you are so caught up in the sheer joy of it that you let the scarf covering your face fall off, as some clearly did, then your days of freedom are few.

And you'll be sitting in a police interview room before long, feeling much less like a working-class hero and a lot more like a mug.

Trouble of the kind we witnessed last week leads potentially to escalation.

That enhances the threat against those the paramilitaries choose to attack; it also raises the stakes for their own members. Greater offences beget greater sentences.

Gusty Spence, who fired the first shots of the modern UVF in 1966, has spoken often of the grief and despair that beset the men who came into prison after him. He said you could trace their decline and realisation like a journey along a path.

David Ervine described the same thing; the awakening to the question: 'Why am I here?'

Ervine said that it was out of that reassessment in prison that the political journey away from violence began, for nothing was more pointless than sectarian warfare.

So all these discussions have already been had inside the UVF about how the young man drawn into violence in the heat of events has to reassess everything and often has years in prison in which to do it.

Young loyalists regard themselves as maligned and misunderstood by the wider society in Northern Ireland, but the smarter ones will be asking themselves if they are being manipulated into a self-destructive position by their own leadership.

One of the grievances of loyalists is that the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team investigations into past loyalist offences are closing in on the UVF in a way which they see as unbalanced. There were riots in Newtownabbey last year over this.

Yet, however successful the police might be against clearing up old offences, those charged with murders committed before 1998 will serve only two years in prison after a discount provided by the Good Friday Agreement's early-release scheme.

Yet some of those who offend after the Agreement - the new generation of street-fighters protesting against these investigations - will actually serve much longer.

Some of those boys might conclude then that the UVF sees them as expendable.

If two years of one man's life is worth more to the movement than a longer period in theirs, then the new member is better off staying at home.

There has to be some calculation of what civil unrest on this scale can achieve.

It cannot be the instrument for persuading the police to close down investigations into past murders. The police would lose all respect if they conceded that point.

It can potentially end the UVF ceasefire and take them back into an armed campaign with a new generation that has enjoyed the street-fighting.

But what effect will that have?

Well, if they can pull Provisional republicans into murdering loyalists, or the police, then they can break the political settlement.

That might be a feasible project if enough energy and malice could be directed into it, but it would do no good for loyalists or anyone else.

And the Provisionals probably have more sense than to attend to ludicrous urges from some in the dissidents to arm themselves to defend nationalist districts.

Those dissidents are not looking for an end to violence, but an escalation.

But there is also a question of how the different paramilitaries fit their actions now into their own understandings of their history and purpose.

The IRA is wedded to the myth that it was the defender of Catholics and is vulnerable to dissident tauntings if it clings to it.

The UVF has always argued that it fought the IRA in support of the British state. I don't buy that, but they do.

But how do they write the story of attacks on Catholic communities and on the police defending them? That does more to reinforce the republican story than their own.

Everything points to ineptitude and stupidity in recent decisions and to a failure to pass on to a new generation the lessons of their own experience.

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