Can you ever leave a loyalist terror gang?
More than three years after the UVF declared its war over, many of its foot soldiers are still too frightened to cut their ties with the organisation, writes Brian Rowan
The letter was sent anonymously to the Belfast Telegraph some weeks ago, and sent anonymously for obvious reasons. It suggests that men are trapped inside the UVF - still afraid to leave the loyalist organisation some 16 years after its original ceasefire, and more than three years after what was supposed to be an endgame statement in May 2007.
The letter asks a number of questions - among them:
n Can individual members of the UVF leave the movement without fear of harm to them and their families?
n If the war is over why will men not be allowed to leave?
n Who are we fighting?
n When does it stop?
"People talk about the big picture disbandment, but we the men on the ground just want to be left alone," the letter reads.
"A lot of men have been in jail, lost friends and family. We fought a dirty war.
"Now let us leave and try to get some of the blood off our hands."
After receiving the letter, I contacted a number of senior loyalists.
"They are fair questions," one source responded - adding because of fear: "Perhaps it's the only avenue for asking them."
The source continued: "I wouldn't put it [the letter] in the bin." He meant don't dismiss its content.
Other sources have confirmed the concerns raised in the letter are genuine - that not only are members not being allowed to leave the organisation, but recruitment continues.
After the murder of Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road in May last year - a killing sanctioned locally at UVF leadership level - there is another internal debate taking place and talk again of another endgame statement and another move to "civilianise" the organisation.
The letter sent to this newspaper described a meeting at which the agenda covered "justice, prisons, ex-prisoners, culture, bands [and] working with young people".
All of this is being viewed as part of the latest UVF move to leave the stage. But one source cautioned: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."
In the crisis that followed the Moffett murder, Stormont MLA Dawn Purvis left the Progressive Unionist Party, which has political links to both the UVF and Red Hand Commando.
Brian Ervine became the party's new leader.
Speaking to this newspaper, he has made his position clear: "My own view is you should be allowed to leave [the UVF] without fear or threat, to take a constructive part in society."
And on the bigger question of the future of the UVF, he added: "I want a complete normalisation of men who were former paramilitaries. I want to see them integrated into the communities.
"I believe they have a very valuable contribution to make in many different ways. Ultimately, when the time is right, I would love to see the UVF stand down," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
But there is no magic wand that will make these organisations disappear, and while some are looking for a way out, others fear what that might mean.
This is not just about the UVF.
A senior UDA leader told this newspaper there is a need for a big discussion - a debate on the future of paramilitary loyalism.
"Some people feel you need to have somebody there because of the dissident [republican] threat," that senior UDA figure told the Belfast Telegraph.
But it is not just about the dissident threat.
"The problems in the community," he continued, "drug dealing, hooding; there is still a need for people to be there - that subtle threat."
He is talking about a continuing paramilitary presence - and the fear of its muscle acting as a deterrent.
And yet that drug dealing he talks about can be found in parts of the main loyalist paramilitary organisations - drug dealing and other criminality that reaches into the highest positions in the UDA and UVF.
You read about it in the reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission.
And there is another issue - the power that comes with being a paramilitary leader.
"Someone was a military commander - now he is nothing. They feel disempowered," a senior loyalist said.
In other words they need paramilitary rank to be someone, to have a position within their communities.
And there are others who fear life outside these organisations.
"There will be people who want to stay," a senior paramilitary figure commented, "and people who can't get out, because they've made so many enemies over the years, abused their positions."
And, so, there is a kind of tug-of-war inside the loyalist organisations between those trying to pull them in a new direction and others trying to stay where they are, where they are comfortable, where they have a place and a rank.
There are those who know that the different "wars" are over and who want to go home.
And then there are those who also know the "wars" are over, but who can't and won't go home.
These organisations have become their way of life - who they are and what they are, what makes them important and relevant in their communities.