Northern Ireland's Protestants Pine for Peace - and Some Ready for War

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THE threat of renewed violence now looms over Northern Ireland as well as mainland Britain, after a warning by loyalist terrorists that they are ready to match the Irish Republican Army "blow for blow."

The so-called Combined Loyalist Military Command, in its first statement since the IRA cease-fire ended a month ago, said Tuesday that IRA attacks cannot continue "without a telling response."

The warning by pro-British loyalists, who matched the IRA cease-fire in the fall of 1994 with a truce of their own, comes after days of heightened tension in the province.

"The gunmen are very jumpy," says David Irvine, spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party, which has close links with loyalist paramilitaries. "Their wives are being followed to schools and such by IRA men, and I think it's all part of the creation of an atmosphere by the IRA in which the unknown is a form of terrorism itself."

Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, which is also close to loyalist outlaws, said the warning showed that "the dangerous road which the IRA is traveling will inevitably lead to confrontation between the two communities. But it's also saying that now is the time to draw back from the brink."

Since the end of the IRA cease-fire last month, these two fringe parties have astonished local opinion with their conciliatory tone. Far from calling for violent revenge, they have urged peaceful adherence to negotiation.

"We haven't carried our argument very well," concedes Mr. Irvine. "We're inclined to be viewed as an orange-shirted Fascisti. But that isn't the case. There's substantial diversity within unionism - there's right, left, and center, those who want to move to the future, and those who can't countenance change."

His latter comment refers to the Rev. Ian Paisley, the charismatic, fire-breathing Protestant politician who for many has come to symbolize the unionists of Northern Ireland.

But the spectrum of unionist belief, held by a clear majority of Northern Ireland's people, is much broader than Mr. Paisley's high profile might suggest. His hard-line Democratic Unionist Party comes second in elections to the biggest and oldest unionist party, the secular Ulster Unionists, who hold nine seats in the British Parliament.

Across the spectrum, unionism is less a philosophy than a statement of British identity. Those who openly profess it are overwhelmingly Protestant. But a sizable minority of the province's Catholics - 1 in 3, in a 1995 study by Queen's University in Belfast - also favor maintaining the union with Britain, albeit quietly. …