BRITAIN is hoping for closer cooperation from Northern Ireland's Catholic community and from the government of the Irish Republic, following its surprise decision on Aug. 10 to ban the province's largest Protestant paramilitary organization.
The move could boost the prospects for talks about Northern Ireland's political future, making further progress when the talks resume in the autumn.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, outlawed the Ulster Defense Association after a three-month review of its activities. At an Aug. 10 press conference, he said he had decided to proscribe the UDA because its primary purpose was engaging in terrorism.
Asked why he had not also banned Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA itself is banned), he said Sinn Fein participates openly in Northern Ireland's political process. In the April 9 general election, 10 percent of the vote in the province went to Sinn Fein candidates.
Sir Patrick denied that the ban, which was swiftly denounced by UDA leaders, had been prompted by pressure from the Irish government in Dublin. But moderate Catholic political sources in Belfast said cracking down on the UDA and its military front organization, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), was calculated to improve the atmosphere in talks aimed at reaching a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The talks, involving the London and Dublin governments and all Northern Ireland's constitutional parties, have been continuing since the general election. The last session in July was reported to have gone well.
In banning the UDA the authorities in London are attempting to stifle the activities of an organization with a long record of violence.
British officials say the UDA was responsible for 46 percent of all sectarian killings in Northern Ireland last year. Sir Patrick, who took up his post after the general election, said that in the future members of the UDA could be sentenced to a 10-year jail term.
He described the UFF as "a mere front" for UDA terrorist acts. In 1991, according to official figures, Protestant loyalists killed 40 people, all civilians. Republicans, mainly the IRA, killed 47 - 28 civilians and 19 members of the security forces. So far this year the UDA has claimed responsibility for more than a dozen killings, including five Catholics who were murdered in a machine-gun attack on a betting shop in February.
The UDA was founded in 1971 when IRA attacks on Protestants increased sharply. Within a year it had a membership of about 40,000.
It set up vigilante groups in Protestant areas, and its members paraded openly in military-style outfits.
In 1974 the UDA enforced a strike by Protestant workers which forced the London authorities to abandon a powersharing agreement between Protestants and moderate Catholics in Northern Ireland. Ever since the province has been under direct rule from London. In recent years UDA membership has declined to a few thousand, and it has become mainly a paramilitary organization.
Northern Ireland Catholics for many years have called on the London authorities to ban the UDA. But as recently as last March Peter Brooke, the outgoing secretary for Northern Ireland, argued that doing so would drive it underground.
Sources inside Ulster's mainly Catholic Social and Liberal Democrat Party (SDLP) say the ban on the UDA is welcome on security and political grounds.
SDLP spokesmen refused to comment on what the British government might be looking for in return for the ban. There has been widespread speculation, however, that the Dublin government might drop its territorial claim to Northern Ireland - a source of profound complaint by Ulster's Protestant community.
In Dublin, a Foreign Affairs department spokesman commented on Aug. 10: "We share the widespread concern that exists in Northern Ireland about the role and activities of the UDA. In recent months, these concerns have been accentuated by the upsurge in acts of violence perpetrated by loyalist paramilitaries."
Reaction among Northern Ireland's Protestant political leaders was surprisingly restrained. Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, said he had nothing against banning the UDA but felt Sinn Fein should have been included in the order.
He added: "We have never had any hang-ups about the possible proscription of the UDA or any organization involved in sectarian murder."
Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, notorious for his fiery attacks on British policy in Northern Ireland, was, by his own standards, remarkably restrained.
Dr. Paisley accused Sir Patrick of "double standards," and said the ban would be viewed as one-sided and "as a sop to Dublin and Republicanism."