"What people abroad don't understand," said Andy Tyrie, head of the paramilitary Ulster Defense Association (UDA) since 1973, "is that we Protestants are trying to survive.
"There's nothing for us in the south. Bobby Sands was trying to bring down this country, our country of Ulster.
"Right now, we are staying out of the violence. The security forces have learned from experience. They are firing only plastic bullets at petrol bombers , not real ones. So far they are containing the terror. We don't want the rest of the world condemning us as the baddies again."
He measured his words. "But if we are attacked, we will respond."
So says one of the most influential Protestants in Northern Ireland, this former Rolls Royce fitter and turner who has so far persuaded his 15,000 armed and trained men to stay calm following Bobby Sands' death.
At this writing, this correspondent had seen only deserted Protestant streets in west Belfast at night since Mr. Sands died May 5.
A new testing time has begun for all Protestants here as well as for non-IRA Catholics. Three other IRA prisoners remain on hunger strike, and about 70 others are said to be willing to join. Six hundred extra British soldiers have been flown here to reinforce the 11,000 already on duty.
Mr. Tyrie speaks for many of Ulster's 1 million majority Protestants who admit that the PRovisional IRA has done a skillful and effective job of mobilizing opinion abroad, especially in the United States.
If the rest of the world sees Protestants as occupying the driver's seat, they see themselves as constantly threatened by "subversion" from northern Catholics whom they see acting on behalf of 3.5 million Catholics in the south.
"In Los Angeles someone told me the Catholics have no houses," the flamboyant Rev. Ian Paisley told me disbelievingly.
"I asked how then Catholics could stage rates [local tax] and rent strikes? I think the case for Northern Ireland has been badly put abroad. Americans know all about Bobby Sands but have they heard about Garry Martin?
"He was an Ulster policeman killed by the IRA, one of many. who mourns for them? They didn't choose to die. bobby Sands did."
Mr. Paisley agrees that Protestants should stay out of violence for the moment.So does more moderate spokesman Harold McCusker Official Unionist MP for Amaragh.
Behind the bulletproof glass of the front windows of his home in Portadown, south of here, he said in an interview: "I'm encouraging people to stay quiet unless we are attacked. You know, IRA violence is no different from violence in Lebanon, Cyprus, the Basque country of Spain. First it must be stopped. Then and only then political progress is possible."
Mr. McCusker sees "skillful media exploitation" by the IRA. He sees its demands for political status for prisoners as its way of trying to justify "the killing of the old and the innocent."
The question now is whether more extreme paramilitarists, including the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand commandoes, will indeed stay quiet.
"In a united Ireland," said taxi driver Michael McConnel, "we Protestants would have to live under their law. We would be driven out. Catholics say this is their country but we say it is ours."
Did he trust the British Army troops and the predominantly Protestant Ulster police force to protect him?
"No. The Army just stands around. It doesn't really do much. Anyway it has a terrible job, bombs and rocks thrown at it all the time. If I were a soldier sent here, I'd desert."
Andy Tyrie, short, broad, and affable, was more detailed in a long interview at UDA headquarters in east Belfast.
In the lobby below, wallets, key rings, bags, stickers, and other items made by UDA inmates at the Maze Prison were sold to raise money -- reminders of past Protestant violence.
On a large color wall poster of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer someone has stuck UDA badges on the royal lapels and Diana's collar.
"Protestants in the south have dwindled from 12 percent in 1922 to 2 percent today," Mr. Tyrie said. (Other estimates say 4 percent).
"Catholics speak with one voice, Protestants with many.If they ruled all Ireland, there would be no divorce law [the south doesn't have one], no contraception [officially at least], no abortion, and so on. But to me the main point is the dominion Catholicism claims over your life, who you can marry, how you raise your children."
A fervent loyalist, he points to the writings of Belfast scholar Ian Adamson to show that the peoples of Scotland and Northern Ireland both trace their heritage back to the Cruthin people (called Picts by the Romans). He denies the assertion that Ireland is historically Gaelic from top to bottom.
He joins with Paisley and others in distrust of the British government.
"It's the senior British civil servants, they're the ones who will tell the British when to get out," he said. "The reason th e UDA exists is because we don't trust them. Look at the talks they've held with the IRA in the past."