Loyalism is not merely about ceasefire soldiers hellbent on reliving past
The Dee Stitt stand-off obscures the positive contribution being made by former paramilitary prisoners, writes Henry McDonald
In the summer and autumn of 2000, during the vicious feud between Johnny Adair's 'C' company of the UDA and the UVF that tore the greater Shankill area apart, a curious thing happened during the loyalist in-fighting.
While the lower Shankill under Adair and the middle Shankill under the UVF's leadership became war zones against each other, there was virtually no violence on the streets in areas such as Highfield and the West Circular Road.
This was because the UDA leadership of 'A' company in its so-called "west Belfast battalion" refused to take part in Adair's war to seize supremacy of loyalism across Northern Ireland in a shaky alliance with the LVF.
The UDA's 'A' company in the west of the city let it be known to the UVF brigade staff that it was not interested in joining Adair's struggle with the older paramilitary group.
Indeed, one senior figure in 'A' company even tried to persuade a prominent UVF member to "pretend" that there was an actual feud in Highfield by agreeing to breaking the windows of a couple activists on the estate on each side of the loyalist divide. (The UVF leader laughed off such a suggestion as ludicrous and sent the UDA 'A' company character away with a flea in his ear).
Nonetheless, it was true that, during those bloody months of internecine fighting, areas such as Highfield, the West Circular and Ballygomartin were relatively quiet compared to the chaos and instability further down the Shankill. East Belfast, too, was hardly affected by the feuding, similarly loyalist redoubts in the south of the city.
Jackie McDonald's UDA battalion in south Belfast avoided all conflict with the UVF. Members of both organisations were still socialising and talking to each other when they met up in areas like Sandy Row and Donegall Pass - even while parts of the Shankill burned.
The confinement of the feud to a few crucible areas of loyalist paramilitary influence was further evidence of the dangers of generalisations about Ulster loyalism in its entirety.
As with the war on the Shankill and beyond 16 years ago, so it goes with the different ways loyalists behave, depending on the areas where they sprung from during the Troubles.
This writer has before, several times, pointed to the good example of Lisburn, where ex-UDA activists have helped combat the rise of racism and xenophobia - not with simplistic slogans and protests, but through a practical programme of absorption for the new communities that are coming into the city.
There are other parts of Northern Ireland - notably on the east Antrim coast (and Carrickfergus, in particular) - where other ex-UDA members are behaving in a disgraceful fashion during the slow-burning, low-intensity feuding between two warring factions of the same loyalist movement.
Meanwhile, in parts of east Belfast, individual UVF bigwigs are influential in the illegal drugs trade - even while the organisation's Shankill-based leadership is vehemently opposed to any role in the illicit narcotics business.
The picture is more complex and mixed than news reports would have you believe - even if the Press still does a sterling job in exposing individual loyalist hard men, who use their paramilitary muscle to control the supply of drugs in Protestant working-class communities.
All of this is highly relevant, given the current row over Dee Stitt's controversial role as CEO of Charter NI, the charity doling out funds from the Northern Ireland Executive aimed at regenerating both republican and loyalist working-class communities.
In a film for the news organisation I work for on a daily basis, the Guardian, Stitt described his North Down Defenders flute band as "our Homeland Security" - adding: "We are here to defend North Down from anybody."
These comments have put his £35,000 post as Charter NI's CEO in jeopardy, with Stitt even threatening to stand down from his position last week.
They were, of course, injudicious remarks - which Stitt no doubt regrets - but it could lead to him losing his job and plunging the charity into a political crisis.
Regardless of the fate of Dee Stitt, the controversy does raise bigger questions again about the efficacy of channelling public/taxpayers' money into projects under the control of former paramilitaries.
Do they constitute, in effect, a "bribe" by Government (either devolved or national) to win loyalists away from crime? Or are they genuine attempts to bring loyalist activists in from the cold and help them contribute positively to a post-Troubles society?
Charter NI was originally established to help former UDA prisoners get re-educated, re-train in employment skills and generally re-integrate into society as law-abiding citizens.
The UDA, in the same area of north Down, has been blamed for the hammer attack on Aaron McMahon, who opposed the building of an illegal paramilitary bonfire in the area. Yet, not everyone connected with loyalism in north Down (or elsewhere) can be tarred with the same, broad brush.
Just because there is controversy over one, single project doesn't mean there aren't others where loyalists play a central role in improving their communities - just as many ex-IRA and ex-INLA members are doing all over Northern Ireland in nationalist working-class areas.
The issue has been one of the most controversial of the post-peace process era in terms of demilitarising Northern Ireland society.
Among many of the former republican and loyalist paramilitaries I have met over the years, I find few of the veterans with any appetite for ongoing illegality - let alone a return to armed campaigns.
The overwhelming majority appeared - and still appear - to be relieved that that part of their lives is long over and, hopefully, gone forever.
Ironically, it is those who "signed up" long after the shooting and bombing had stopped who seem the most enthusiastic for bombastic, quasi-military swaggering and exuding an air of menace as the "made men" of their communities.
These are the "ceasefire soldiers", who continue to prop up their power behind the flags of convenience of the three capital letters of the UDA, or UVF.
And the best force to counteract them is actually those from these organisations in the past who lived, killed, were imprisoned and morally damaged by 25 years of pointless conflict.
The projects and funding that enhance this latter group's status in communities alienated from the political process at Stormont are still worth supporting.