It was entirely understandable that nationalists and their political representatives, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, would be cynical about the decision a few weeks ago by Sir Reg Empey to take David Ervine into his assembly party.
This cynicism extended beyond nationalists. Raymond McCord, a Protestant, whose son was murdered by the UVF, rounded on Empey.
Responsibility for the cynical reaction lies with the way in which Reg Empey presented Ervine joining his party. He described it as a victory for unionism claiming Sinn Féin would lose to unionists a ministerial seat should the executive be formed.
Defending his decision Empey vaguely alluded to his efforts to bring loyalist violence to an end suggesting the Ervine move was part of this plan.
In interviews over the last three weeks the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party made little or no mention of Sir Reg’s efforts to end loyalist violence.
However, in an interview with Noel Thompson on last week’s Hearts and Minds Empey gave a detailed account of his engagements with loyalists primarily the UVF.
Empey stoutly defended the Ervine decision and the exchanges with loyalists. He also changed the context of his argument about the Ervine decision emphasising the need for, and his dialogue, with loyalists.
In the interview he went further than any previous unionist leader when he spoke not only about the importance of his engagement with loyalists but also the responsibility unionist parties have to bring loyalist violence to an end. He also stated that loyalists had been used by unionist leaders in the past.
While he did not say it, he implied that the leaders of unionism had a moral responsibility to end loyalist violence.
It is too early to say whether this is a fundamental shift in the thinking of mainstream unionism towards loyalism or a temporary tactical move by a party under electoral pressure from the DUP.
If it is a genuine shift then it should be welcomed and encouraged.
Indeed had such thinking been around the leadership of David Trimble, which included Reg Empey, then it is unlikely the Ulster Unionists would be playing second fiddle to the DUP.
We would have been spared the hypocritical ‘no guns-no government’ mantra from Trimble and his party’s opposition to forming a power-sharing administration as envisaged under the Good Friday agreement.
Empey’s engagement with loyalists not only brings him face to face with the people responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Catholics, it brings him face to face with a mentality inside unionism which was often indifferent to loyalist violence but used it and encouraged it nonetheless.
To completely end loyalist violence Empey will also have to challenge those in the PSNI Special Branch and British intelligence agencies who continue to this day to use loyalists to undermine the peace process.
The recent television documentaries about Mark Haddock, a UVF double agent working for Special Branch, reveal the scale, endemic nature and control of that Special Branch-sponsored violence. UTV’s Insight on Monday night claimed that Haddock was linked to more than 20 killings!
For Reg Empey’s strategy to be effective he has to take on those inside the British intelligence community who are in charge and running the murder squads.
He will also have to take on Ian Paisley and the DUP who have a penchant for fraternising with loyalists and being involved in theatrical gestures which imply violence.
Unionist politicians eagerly lined up with the UDA during the UWC strike in 1974. Many people were killed during that strike.
Ian Paisley led hundreds of men into the countyside where they waved licences for legally-held weapons.
With Peter Robinson and others he donned the red beret of Ulster Resistance and then quickly ditched them when they imported guns from South Africa, guns which killed scores of Catholics and remain in loyalist’s hands.
Willie McCrea shared a platform in Portadown with child-killer Billy Wright and was defended by his party when criticised.
Reg Empey’s moves come at a time when both the UVF and the UDA claim to be seeking the road back to the peace process.
His efforts would be successful a lot quicker if he was joined by the leader of the DUP.