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Loyalism is at a crossroads, but its prospects look bleak

Loyalism - political and paramilitary - is not yet out of the woods. Wednesday night's extraordinary general meeting of the Progressive Unionist Party has bought it a little more time, created a breathing space.

But after Dawn Purvis' resignation as a member and leader of the party, big questions remain and big decisions have to be made.

They are about who wants to maintain that historical political link to the UVF and Red Hand Commando - and who doesn't.

The UVF has created this latest crisis within loyalism and did so when its leaders sent gunmen out to murder Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road a fortnight ago.

That killing was the straw that broke Ms Purvis's back - and others want to follow her into a new political place.

They would prefer if that could be done in a managed exit process.

"There are two PUPs," one senior party source said within hours of Wednesday's meeting, "and neither one took the bull by the horns".

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"Everybody kept talking about the link - and it's not about a link."

He is talking about that party link to the UVF and Red Hand Commando - the one that means that political loyalism is forever judged on the actions of those organisations.

It is why Dawn Purvis walked after the Moffett killing saying she could no longer "offer leadership to a party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others".

Some had feared a big row and split at Wednesday's meeting and some believe the presence in the room of Winston 'Winkie' Rea was a calming influence.

Rea is part of that paramilitary world, but a significant figure in the loyalist peace. He was very close to the late David Ervine, whose widow Jeanette and brother Brian also attended Wednesday's meeting.

The PUP is important to Mrs Ervine because of her late husband's leadership of the party and his role in the peace process. But she is also very clear that there is no place for guns and killing or for paramilitary domination of communities and she said that loud and clear in a recent interview with this newspaper. The PUP can only survive as a credible political party if the UVF lets it. That means no more killing, no more making a nonsense of the decommissioning process, no more criminality and that organisation stepping out into the bright lights of the peace and political processes.

There are those in the UVF who won't do that - because their interest is self-interest and self-gain. And that means the political link to the loyalist paramilitary world will always be in danger of breaking.

In the here and now there are choices to be made: Dawn Purvis has political staff who are also members of the PUP. It is hard to see how they can be both.

There is a big decision too for David Rose, a one-time deputy leader and now an independent member of the Policing Board. And there are decisions to be made by interim leader Dr John Kyle and others in that party whose interests are community regeneration and helping the most disadvantaged in our society.

Can they do that, concentrate on that, while looking and worrying over their shoulders about what the UVF might do next?

The IRA was brought to decision time in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert Mc Cartney murder. Within months there was an end game statement and the most significant acts of decommissioning.

Will the Moffett killing bring the UVF to that same decision point? If that organisation stays on the stage, and plays with its guns then it makes life impossible for those whose interest is politics.

In the loyalist community the people's revenge has always been the privacy of the ballot box. Not many loyalists have managed to get elected. In the period of the peace process you can count the number on the fingers of one hand.

The PUP might survive this latest crisis, but to do what?

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