Fionnuala O Connor: It's as if loyalist violence is taking place in a different world
Charles Harding Smith, now there’s a name. A 19th century British party leader, was he? The writer in the 1930s of once-popular, now forgotten murder mysteries? Or would he have been one of those travelling peddlers of bogus medicine in the Wild West? None of the above.
As the most dedicated students of the Troubles know, Harding Smith was the earliest recorded UDA leader on the Shankill, who repeatedly escaped death at the hands of his own outfit in the early 1970s until persuaded to migrate to the bigger island.
The pattern has been repeated down the years. Forcibly retired loyalists, most of them UDA, are dotted round Scotland and England. They come to mind as yet again violent feuding boils up in Carrickfergus, Bushmills, Doagh, setting streets alight with nerves and presumably, near-despair.
Not necessarily linked, these incidents. Loyalist paramilitary groups long ago fragmented and were always given to murderous personal clashes and territorial wars. The Doagh incident is apparently linked to the UVF. The UDA in south Belfast and east Belfast take no responsibility for what happens in east Antrim, where bitterly opposed factions have been fighting each other for years past.
Nearly two decades after the loyalist ceasefires that imitated the IRA, paramilitary groups that once claimed places in negotiations are splintered, sunk in crime. What political organisation they generated withered long ago. They exist to no good purpose, and refuse to go away.
So it is that this week talks supposedly continue about reviving Stormont – although to put it mildly neither of the two big parties appears entirely focused on the business. But nor are they in the least distracted by what happened in Carrick last Monday, when 44-year-old George Gilmore was shot and fatally injured, in daylight, by unmasked killers.
The week’s events were reported as though from different worlds. Carrickfergus and Doagh might as well be in a country far away for all the general interest in their disturbances. Whatever the outcome at Stormont, paramilitary loyalism will keep on doing what it does. As of course will the republicans, involved or not in drugs and other crime, who see Sinn Féin as sell-outs and justify continued violence to demonstrate their own fidelity to ‘armed struggle’.
The difference is that Sinn Féin developed out of a concerted attempt to turn as much as possible of an organisation away from violence. The ‘process’ meant to bring paramilitaries into politics long ago failed to absorb loyalism.
There was nothing comparable in the loyalist world to the Sinn Féin fronted up by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, for multiple reasons. But McGuinness and Adams also, and crucially, became part of a web of support, diplomacy and influence that involved Irish, British and American governments, sustained by the tireless optimism of the SDLP’s John Hume.
It doesn’t suit today’s Sinn Féin to remember any of this too clearly. For a time they leaned towards writing Hume out of the story, the better to magnify the roles of Adams and McGuinness. Their leaders showed to good enough advantage on a wider stage. As with other strands of republican propaganda, there was no need to tinker with the narrative.
Over the last decade Stormont has looked increasingly like one long anti-climax while progress for the party in the Republic has been a frustrating mix of advance and slippage.
Now they have several developments to consider and exploit, or strive to mitigate. Brexit has up-ended British politics and unnerved the south. The McGuinness illness and retirement takes away the one figure in Stormont with unquestioned, and until recently, unquestionable authority.
It will take time to analyse a total northern nationalist vote that for the first time reflects the demographic balance recorded in the last census. Sinn Féin must now figure out how to hold on to their share of it.
The Arlene factor lit up polling day, brought out the vote. Appearing to enable further DUP arrogance towards nationalism will bring nothing but scorn.
By contrast the betting is that continuing loyalist violence in predominantly Protestant districts will not damage the DUP vote. Unionist politicians condemned Hume for trying to bring republicans into politics. Now it is as if they are content to have no influence on the dregs of paramilitarism in small Protestant towns, still feuding violently among decent people.