'THE Prods are going mad," a rural Ulster (Protestant) friend told me on the phone the other day. "The loyalists are determined to spill blood. Any blood. And you should hear what some of the RIR [Royal Irish Regiment] are saying. As for the people who voted for the DUP."
OK. This is what I think is happening right now. With the mostly unwitting assistance of the Prods, the police and the British and Irish governments, the Provos' grand strategy of destabilising Northern Ireland is chugging along nicely.
Let's start with the loyalists. The UVF - a nasty crowd of criminals - are trying to destroy an even nastier crowd of criminals, their offshoot, the LVF, for largely territorial reasons. In time-honoured fashion, this means intimidating people out of their homes and shooting soft targets that might or might not be linked with the LVF. Despite four dead people to date, the Government continues to maintain that the UVF is on ceasefire. It's "a crackpot situation", as that civilised man, Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party, observed the other day.
Much though I hate to agree with Sinn Fein, the police don't seem to be doing much about it: they stood around while hundreds of UVF men drove alleged LVF families out of a Belfast housing estate.
Yet I understand why mostly they appear so impotent. As a friend who is a retired RUC superintendent remarked recently: "In our day, we'd have had intelligence on all these bastards. Now, because the cops aren't allowed to have any informers that aren't without sin, most of them have been sacked."
Meanwhile, with apparent impunity, the UDA, who like all loyalist groups hate the Sunday World because it dishes the dirt on paramilitaries, have gone beyond simple threats and have taken to marching into newsagents and setting fire to copies of our sister paper. Those loyal to Andre Shoukri (the 'brigadier' of Egyptian extraction) are particularly cross because of the World's recent revelations about his gambling.
I don't want to hurt your heads, but UDA factions are fighting with each other.
When they have a bit of time on their hands, a fair few loyalists are attacking vulnerable Catholic homes with petrol bombs. They don't like Catholics at the best of times, but they are in a particularly nihilistic frame of mind at present. They believe the IRA statement was meaningless, that republicans will stay armed, continue to run their criminal gangs and will ultimately gain control of policing.
In releasing Sean Kelly, the Shankill Road bomber, whom loyalists believe has been recently active in the Belfast IRA, the British government was seen once again to bow to Gerry Adams. The announcement that the home battalions of the RIR would be wound up in 2007 made everything much, much worse.
It's not just loyalists who have concluded that the British government intend to leave the unionist population undefended: it's middle-of-the-road, respectable Prods. There are some members of the RIR who have been talking mutiny and while they will probably be bought off, the sense of bitterness is terrible. More than 200 of their members were murdered by the IRA, and compensation to their families was pitiful, yet as a sop to Sinn Fein, their dissolution was announced in the media without notice.
By bellowing about treachery, Ian Paisley has played into republican hands.
Many ordinary unionists who abandoned the UUP because they felt it too weak to stop the stream of concessions to republicanism now feel the DUP has let them down. Many are genuinely terrified about the future. They believe the effectiveness of the police has been sacrificed on the appeasement altar and, like loyalists, see a future in which their tormentors of the last 30 years will become their masters.
Winding-up-the-Prods is a popular republican game, played with great finesse. It's impossible to describe what anger it causes when Sinn Fein deliberately speak of "unionist paramilitary gangs". (Imagine how the SDLP would feel if unionist politicians spoke of "nationalist paramilitary gangs".)
There has been much subtle republican footwork going on over parades, flags, contentious memorials, some persecution of Protestants in Derry, and countless acts of deliberate provocation like Gerry Adams's lies over Bertie Ahern promising Northern MPs speaking rights.
The summer will continue to be lively.