While it tiptoes delicately through the political minefield of Northern Ireland, the British government is keeping a close watch on the various Protestant paramilitary groups in the province.
If London, fed up with the violence in Northern Ireland, were to wash its hands of the province, few in this city doubt that the paramilitary groups would quickly spill onto the streets in violent protest.
The British Army, for one, believes that sectarian violence would ensue, though a spokesman for the 11,000-man force says it is "quietly confident" of being able to handle such an eventuality.
The threat of paramilitary violence in Ulster was heightened recently when the Rev. Ian Paisley announced that he was raising a defense force to strike back at the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA). At a march-past of some 1,000 Protestants in Six Mile Cross, Country Tyrone, the Democratic Unionist leader declared that such a force would be provided with "teeth" and said his battle against the IRA would be fought "in the hedgerows, in the hills, in the fields, and in the laneways of Ulster."
The following day the Irish National Liberation Army, calling Mr. Paisley "a legitimate target," attempted to assassinate him in the Markets area of Belfast.
Even though the Protestant paramilitary groups insist they came into being because the British security forces were not doing enough to quell IRA violence or protect the loyalist population, the police consider them essentially criminal groups and insist their membership is far less than it used to be.
Of the 20 or so paramilitary groups spawned by the troubles in the early 1970 s, some have become far less active or appear to have gone out of existence.
The most significant are:
Ulster defense Association. The largest and most resilient organization, the UDA has been led since 1973 by Andy Tyrie, a quiet- spoken machine operator who is credited with purging it of its gangster element.
Under his direction, the UDA has abandoned its mass marches to concentrate on promoting a plan for Ulster's negotiated independence, a proposal that former British Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan recently endorsed as the best solution to the province's problems.
Though the UDA's current membership of 10,000 is probably a quarter of what it was at its peak in 1972, a spokesman maintains that the organization can mobilize 30,000 to 50,000 people in an emergency.
The royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is clearly still wary of the UDA. Indeed , two days after John McMichael, the UDA's political officer, spoke to this reporter, he was picked up in a police swoop and held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
His arrest followed a report in a British newspaper that the UDA was planning a terror campaign south of the border and the assassination of Republicans in Ulster.
Some weeks ago the police raided the UDA's East Belfast headquarters and claim to have seized two pistols and several submachinegun parts. The police concede that there is a "distinct possibility" that the organization has a few hundred weapons.
Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UFF is the one group particularly feared by the Roman Catholic population. It actually falls under the ultimate jurisdiction of the UDA, according to Mr. McMichael. The organization, declared illegal in 1973 , now strikes exclusively at the "active service units" of the IRA and Irish National Liberation Army, he says, though it has claimed to have killed numerous Catholics between 1973 and 1977.
In 1974 the IRA charged that the UFF was a British Army killer squad but later, apparently, changed its mind. Following the murders of Lord Mountbatten off the County Sligo coast and of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint in South County Down in August 1979, the UFF vowed to hit back at the IRA. It claimed that after reorganization and reequipment it had become the most powerful paramilitary group in Northern Ireland.
Ulster Volunteer Force. The initials UVF are daubed lavishly on walls in Belfast's Shankill Road, where it has drawn much of its support.
Outlawed in 1966 as "a sordid conspiracy of criminals" by Ulster Prime Minister Terence O'Neill, its best-known leader is Gusty Spence, who was sentenced to death that year for the murder of a catholic barman and now resides in the Maze prison.
In an attempt to channel the UVF's energy into political activity in 1974, the organization was taken off the proscribed list. But its illegal status was rapidly restored after it claimed responsibility for an outbreak of violence in October 1975 in which 12 people died and some 40 were injured -- mostly Catholics. In 1977, 26 UVF men were sentenced to a total of 700 years' imprisonment for a variety of crimes, including four murders.
According to a leading expert on Northern Ireland the UVF probably maintains a small organization in Belfast. The police put its number at no more than 50.
Red Hand Commandos. A paramilitary group declared illegal along with the UFF , it was the Red and Hand Commandos whose members are thought to have engaged in sectarian assassinations in the early 1970s. Today the police believe the organization is dormant.
Ulster Citizen Army. This group declared in 1974 that "power-crazed animals have taken over control of the loyalist paramilitary organizations" and claimed they had embarked on "wanton slaughter, intimidation, robbery, and extortion."
In John McMichael's view the Ulster Citizen Army never existed. He firmly believes it was "the creation of the dirty tricks department of the British Army" and consisted of a single officer.
The creation of such a front organization (which has expensive headed stationery, as Mr. McMichael recalls) would have permitted the British Army to gather information on loyalist paramilitary groups, enabling it, perhaps, to sow dissension in their ranks.
Tara. This Belfast-based group describes itself as "the hard core of Protestant resistance." The police label it a "doomsday" organization.
But many here fail to see what the Protestant paramilitary organizations could hope to achieve in any clash with the British Army. Irregulars with rifles and pistols would be no match for some of NATO's best formations.