Chilling words from one loyalist `soldier' in N. Ireland conflict

``The only way to solve problems here is to start fighting back,'' says Andrew Tyrie quietly. ``I am comfortable provided that our people shoot or assassinate [only] known Irish Republicans [members of the illegal Irish Republican Army].'' Like so much else in this paradoxical land of stunning natural beauty and ugly urban terrorism, these chilling words are strikingly at odds with their sur roundings.

Mr. Tyrie, leader of what he estimates to be the 10,000 Protestants who make up the para-military Ulster Defense Association, is baby-sitting for his granddaughter during this Friday evening interview. Perched on the sofa cushion beside him is a doll, a toy pacifier in its mouth.

But Tyrie -- described by one British official here as ``a kind of godfather figure'' for Protestant paramilitary activists -- is anything but pacified.

Three months ago, the British government dealt the Protestants here what many regard as their greatest challenge in living memory. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, seeking a way to end 16 years of violence between the ``loyalist'' Protestant majority and the ``nationalist'' Roman Catholic minority in this besieged province, signed an agreement last November with her counterpart in the Irish Republic, Garret FitzGerald.

The accord established a joint governing structure through which the Irish Republic plays a limited role in the rule of Northern Ireland.

Today Mrs. Thatcher is scheduled to hear the objections of loyalist leaders James Molyneaux, head of the Official Unionists, and the Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionists. If loyalists get no satisfactory answers, there are plans afoot for a massive day of protest all across Northern Ireland next Monday.

Caught up in this whirl of events is Tyrie, leader since 1973 of what he calls ``the most misunderstood people in Europe.''

``All my life I've defined myself as British,'' says Tyrie, an unimpassioned man of Scottish-Irish extraction. ``But we've always been suspicious that Brit-ain was trying to dump us.''

For Tyrie, the Anglo-Irish accord confirms that suspicion. It appears to him to be paving the way for eventual union of the island into one nation.

To outsiders, the problem here often appears to be religious, since the 62 percent Protestant majority in present-day Northern Ireland would become a 20 percent minority in a largely Catholic united Ireland.

But Tyrie sees it in other terms.

``It's not a religious problem, it's not a social problem, it's a problem of territory,'' he says. ``I'm not a bigot. I started off living on the Shank Hill Road [a heavily Catholic area of Belfast] and I know quite a few Catholics -- I grew up with them.''

But he knows, too, that the goal of the IRA is to press on with its increasingly sophisticated forms of terrorism until Ireland is united as a single socialist state.

For Tyrie, as for most of the conservative blue-collar Protestants employed in the shipyards and aircraft factories of this city, such a goal is anathema. ``I'd rather have an independent state than go Irish,'' he says.

But do his feelings necessarily lead him to approve of Protestant terrorism? Here Tyrie is on delicate ground. The bulk of the terrorism here has come from the IRA -- a fact that concerns the loyalists. ``We've treated our problem here like a crime wave, not like a war,'' says Tyrie. Police and Army spokesmen here agree, noting that the steady dwindling of terrorist offenses in the last decade has come about because law enforcement officials have worked scrupulously within the law.

For Tyrie, however, the current situation is part of a war that has been going on, he says, ``for generations'' -- and in which the protection of Protestants, he feels, can no longer be guaranteed. Hence the hints that Protestants may turn to their own sort of vigilantism and terrorism.

``The only thing [IRA terrorists] understand is a greater form of terrorism,'' Tyrie says.

Unlike the IRA, he says, Protestant paramilitary groups have had ``no large shipments of arms'' from overseas suppliers. But in a confrontation , he adds, ``you'd find a lot of people would have weapons -- there would be enough for a guerrilla war.''

While this kind of threat may simply be one more method of pressuring the British government to revise the Anglo-Irish agreement, officials here take such threats seriously. Another battalion of British troops has reportedly been ordered to the province.

On using terrorism as a form of protest, Tyrie says, ``It's not squared in my conscience. I'm a soldier in the conflict, but I know deep down that it's wrong. Anybody who shoots people for religious reasons is a psychopath.'' And, says this nonpracticing Christian, ``God is not on the side [of anyone] who is killing anyone.''

Is there another way forward for the loyalists besides terrorism?

Proposing something better than the Anglo-Irish accord and improving the image of the Ulster Defense Association are two efforts Tyrie says would be valuable. ``Because of bad public relations, we've simply been seen as bigots and thugs. . . . Some good propaganda for the loyalist cause might be as effective a weapon as terrorism.''

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