Shankill Butchers, other Protestants, key to N. Ireland

December 25, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- They acquire names like Mad Dog and the Shankill Butchers.

They're the hard men of the Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries: the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). There's also the Red Hand Commandos, named for men who signed a covenant in blood in 1912.

The paramilitaries perceive themselves as the defenders of the Protestant community of Northern Ireland. They fight a terrorist war against the united Ireland sought by the Irish Republican Army. They've killed more people in Northern Ireland than the IRA this year and in the last three years.

In the labyrinthian politics of Northern Ireland, they hold one of the threads that leads to peace.

They're studying the peace process proposed by the prime ministers of England and Ireland. They're waiting. They're watching the IRA.

"The paramilitaries have got to be satisfied they can cease hostilities," says the Rev. Roy Magee, a Presbyterian clergyman with close ties to the loyalist underground.

"The people I talk to are still saying they want to see an end to violence," he says. "They will read the document carefully. They want to ask some questions. They want clarification on some points of it. And they will act at the end of their careful consideration."

He's in constant contact with the leadership of the UFF and UVF, now joined in a Combined Ulster Military Command.

"I don't think there will be a better opportunity than at the present to move forward constructively and positively," he says.

"And if that doesn't happen, my dread is that the situation will not remain as it was before and it will deteriorate into greater depths of violence."

Mr. Magee is rather like a chaplain, but he's more like a chaplain in a prison than in the army. He counsels paramilitaries; he doesn't bless them.

"If I challenge them about the murder of an individual Roman Catholic," Mr. Magee says, "they will say, 'You don't know all the facts.' My response is, 'I don't want you to go down the road of legitimatizing your targets.' " The IRA could justify the shooting of a cow because it's milk is being given to the security forces."

Mr. Magee is 60 years old, lean and straight, with a grave Irish face that invites confidence and exudes rectitude. He's not meek, and he's not a pacifist.

"I'm not a peace person," he says. "I'm a person who wants peace. There are occasions where I would be prepared to fight for my country, for my family, for my faith.

"I try explain the loyalist frame of mind to people, to the media, to representatives of government. Where they're coming from. How they read situations.

"I can never speak for them," Mr. Magee says. "But I can try to explain where they stand or how they're thinking at a given time.

"The sad thing is the loyalists see violence pays. It's got a lot of concessions for the IRA and Sinn Fein."

Mr. Magee tells reporters: "You're actually proving violence does pay. They've got your ear, which they hadn't before. Why? Because they started killing people."

The loyalist gunmen, he says, have organized themselves into cells like the IRA.

"That means the only person who knows who comprises the cell is the cell commander," he says. "I think sometimes, in a structure like that, the leadership allows them a license to make their own decisions.

"There would be the sense in which the real activists, the people who are prepared to do the killing, who are getting on with the work, they don't want to isolate them, to castigate them.

"There's a sense, if a war situation develops, they would be needed," he says. "There is a need to keep them under the umbrella and at the same time bring a restraint upon them, which is not always easy."

He finds a similar dilemma in his own position.

"People say to me, 'Do you accomplish anything?' I say it's difficult to measure the number of people who haven't been murdered.

"At least I have a foot in the door, even if they may not listen to me. They come to me and they give me a hearing."

His situation is not without irony.

After returning from vacation last week, Mr. Magee got a phone call from a paramilitary leader.

"'Nice to have you home,' the leader asked. 'Where were you on holiday?'

"'Florida,' I said.

"'That's a dangerous place,' he said. 'They kill people there.' "

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