The timing couldn't be better. For several years now, we've been getting glimpses of life inside the Republican movement--not least in Peter Taylor's, Provos--but the Loyalists in Northern Ireland have remained something of a mystery. All that most of us know is what we see; strange men who dress up in strange orange costumes--like some latter-day Morris dancers--and march provocatively through nationalist areas. A book that gets to the heart of one of the two main players in the 1998 Good Friday agreement can't really lose, especially when it's written by Taylor, who cut his teeth as a BBC reporter in the province in the 1970s and who knows its troubled history as well as anyone.
Loyalists makes compelling reading. It catalogues the struggle in Northern Ireland from its beginnings in the early 17th century, through the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Derry, the arguments over Home Rule, the founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the IRA in 1913 and 1916 respectively, to the present day, but Taylor makes no bones about making the period since 1969 his main concern. The book centres around some breathtakingly frank interviews with Loyalist paramilitaries. Unlike members of the IRA who have tended to glamorise their killings--by portraying themselves as heroic freedom fighters--the Loyalists are refreshingly frank about their activities. They talk in graphic detail about how they planned their murders, carried them out and the rice they have paid for them.
Taylor's skill is to show you how ordinary people can get sucked into events. If they were living anywhere else these men might have been quiet, respectable citizens; in Northern Ireland they become paramilitaries. The political ends justify the means, and it is only when it is too late--when countless lives, including their own, have been ruined--do they realise just what they have done. The problem is that what appears to be random acts of mindless violence to the rest of us are highly effective political weapons to the terrorists. The Loyalists began their campaign as a response to Republican violence and they firmly believe that it was the escalation of their offensive in recent years that brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. Taylor is not quite so uncompromising when it comes to separating the chain of command between the so-called Loyalist politicians, such as Ian Paisley, and the paramilitaries. He acquits Paisley of any terrorist involvement; most historians would hesitate to do so. But this is a minor quibble. Taylor has produced a compelling account of ingrained sectarianism. As convicted former terrorists take their places in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, new fledgling terrorists cut their teeth with car bombs and shootings. Taylor helps you understand the process but he doesn't stop you feeling sick. --John Crace