Commentators have struggled to grasp why Orange men and loyalist paramilitaries have chosen now — at a time when the IRA is getting rid of its arsenal — to bring chaos and disorder to the streets of Belfast.
The non-involvement of the nationalist community has confused matters even further for them. The narrative propagated primarily by the British authorities down through the years had led many to believe that once the IRA went out of business all the problems in the North would be over.
Loyalist violence, they said, was largely reactive to the IRA campaign. They spoke of “tit-for-tat” violence in the darkest days of the conflict.
The analysis was always fundamentally flawed and has shown itself to be utterly redundant in explaining what has happened since the weekend.
Since the inception of partition, loyalists have consistently resorted to violence when they perceive things to be getting away from them on the political front. The existence of the IRA provided cover for those who sought to explain loyalist unrest over the past 30 years or so.
However loyalists have always shown a willingness to strike out at times of political uncertainty — regardless of whether republicans were toting guns or not.
The mobs that attacked civil-rights marchers in the late 1960s did so not because they believed the IRA was poised to rise from the ashes but because they feared the demands for equality espoused by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
When unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill showed a willingness to implement long-overdue reforms in the North, loyalist paramilitaries set about detonating bombs at electricity substations in Belfast. The ensuing black-outs were, as planned, blamed on the largely non-existent IRA. Six loyalist bombs went off in March, 1969. Four bombs at water installations came the following month.
In October, RUC officer Victor Arbuckle was gunned down by loyalists during rioting that followed the Hunt report. The report had recommended that the RUC “B” Specials be disbanded. Arbuckle was the first member of the security forces to die in the Troubles.
In 1974, the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement collapsed after a fortnight of the Ulster Workers Council strike — supported by many unionist politicians and marshaled by loyalist paramilitaries.
In 1994, the UVF and UDA continued to engage in attacks on nationalists for weeks after the IRA ceasefire. Their logic? They suspected that the British government had done a deal with republicans and was about to sell them out.
In each case loyalism, spurred on by fiery words from unionist leaders warning of sell-out and treachery, reacted to perceived gains by nationalists with street violence and intimidation.
So why the intense violence of the last week?
In part, loyalism is suffering a major crisis of confidence. Its political leaders in recent months have been raging against what they claim are continued “concessions” to nationalists. They have warned of secret deals between the republican movement and the British government.
The oft-quoted comment of former Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux that the IRA ceasefire was the most “destabilizing” event in the history of the Northern state is instructive here.
Unionist leaders have always had a tendency to hype up perceived gains by the nationalist community. Instead of providing a cogent and measured analysis of the emerging political situation in the North, they have instead depicted the peace process as one in which unionism can only lose.
On the rare occasions when former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble sought to flag up the beneficial aspects of the process (namely, the scrapping of Articles 2 and 3 and the enshrinement of consent) he was successfully shouted down by the DUP.
At present the DUP, some might expect, could be declaring the IRA a “defeated” army. DUP strategists could conceivably point to IRA decommissioning as a victory for their hard-line tactics.
Instead Paisley has attempted to portray the rerouting of an Orange march away from a Catholic area as yet another blow to unionism. His comments that a failure by the Parades Commission to reconsider its decision might “spark a fire” that cannot be put out was not helpful either.
The subsequent failure by the two main unionist parties to condemn the violence, which involved the machine-gunning, petrol bombing and assault of PSNI officers, lends it legitimacy.
With IRA decommissioning expected to have been completed before the end of the month, brave decisions lie ahead for unionism. Does it embrace the undoubted positives bequeathed by the peace process or does it chose to wallow in talk of sell-out? If it opts for the latter then the North is for a long and unnecessarily painful haul.