Is that a dove I see?: The Troubles have conditioned and obsessed literary and cultural life in Northern Ireland and often in the south, too. What does this week mean for the artist's work and the artist's life? Interviews by Kevin Jackson and John Lyttle

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Glenn Patterson

Patterson, 32, is a Belfast novelist, one of a generation known as 'New Irish Writers'

How will the role of the Irish writer change if the Troubles are over? Well, the simplest thing to say is that we aren't writers just because there's violence here. Northern Ireland will still be valid to write about. This isn't the end of the psychological and emotional fall-out of the last 25 years. It's over, but it's not over.

We can't stop thinking about the past. It would be a relief to stop thinking about it, but we can't. It's left too many questions behind. For the rest of my life, I'm going to be a nervous kind of person. When I hear cars turning corners quickly at night, when I hear about death Belfast does that to you. When I hear about someone being murdered, I think 'Is it a soldier, a policeman, someone in the UVF or a civilian? Are they Protestant? Are they Catholic?'. I think all those things before I say 'That's terrible'. I change my responses according to who they were and how they died. I live with a certain acceptance of violence that I wish I didn't have. I have got to work against it. That's what my work is about.

I was walking around Belfast with a fellow writer, Robert McGraham Wilson, and we were talking about the IRA and how the wording of the terms made it difficult from them to go back, and yet it was still hard to accept it because it's been going on for so long. It's as hard to accept as the look of the city itself after 25 years of warfare.

But there can't be political solutions using terms and references that are increasingly not valid. Loyalist/republican, Protestant/Catholic, Irish/British. It's the language of one thing or another. All these things remain, but what do those words actually mean now? Are they suitable? Writing - fiction and non-fiction - must test those words, question all standpoints, refuse to fit into the old schematic. We, the writers, cannot write out any solution, but we can worry away at it. We have to refuse the old and have new references.

As for believing in the peace Sinn Fein has not addressed all sorts of arguments, but as artists we have been asking for change and must accept that change can happen. There's a feeling here that this might be it, a feeling tempered with caution. But it didn't feel dramatic, no. Not as dramatic as it would have felt if it had happened, say, 10 or 15 years ago.

But the weather was lovely today. It felt like the first day of summer, not the last.

Andrew Eaton

Eaton, 34, grew up in Londonderry in the Seventies. A television producer, his most recent work includes Roddy Doyle's series Family for the BBC.

Like many people who grew up there, I am very cynical when it comes to talk of peace. My father was killed by the IRA in 1976. I would be very cautious.

I've spent much of the past 10 years trying to gain a deeper personal understanding of the situation through making a series of documentary films, one about Northern Irish humour, one about the Field Day company, and one about traditional Irish music. All of this work has dispelled any romantic notions I had about the place as a great wee place to live, full of friendly people and soda bread.

It's worrying to see summaries of the past 25 years on the news as if it's all over. I want to believe the IRA has decided there is nothing to be gained through violence, but any way forward has to carry the majority of the Unionists with it to stand a chance of success. And James Molyneaux's apparent dissatisfaction is not encouraging. The next three months will be the real test. If the ceasefire lasts, at least people might get used to the idea.

Medbh McGuckian

McGuckian is 44. She is a prominent poet who lives in Belfast.

Is it a false dawn? I don't know. I do know it feels different. When I heard about the end to the violence, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I put on music and danced around. I played happy songs and then I played sad songs because I was euphoric and because I felt grief, grief for the dead who can't see this day.

And I wished there was a way the local Catholic population, who feel hope, could talk with the local Protestant population, who feel threatened. I wished there was a place where we could unite. Sometimes I feel a terrible loneliness.

I need to talk. We need to talk. You see, I've been swinging from one thing to the other. Optimism and caution I've felt, but the overall mood has been relief. Relief that the IRA didn't turn around and say 'Fuck off' again, as they did earlier this year. That's why they're out celebrating in west Belfast - but I'm waiting and seeing because where I live in north Belfast is stuck between two loyalist enclaves and if there is backlash ach, if it's gonna hit, it'll hit here.

All last night I could hear the helicopters overhead. One would go and another would come, like drills in the teeth. All night it went on; they're keeping an eye on us. You know, just in case. But I've haven't heard one today, not a one. What does this mean to me as a poet? Ach, now, I saw Ciaran Carson from the Irish Arts Council yesterday and he said to me 'What are we all going to write about now? We've had the carpet dragged from under us. We'll all have to start writing love poems.' And I laughed and said, 'Ciaran, I've always written love poems.'

The last few nights I've being writing poems. Condition Three the first poem is called. It's about the dawn as the betrayer, the dawn as a broker. I couldn't finish the poem, for I'm waiting for things to happen. The poem I wrote last night is called Blood Words. The first verse is something you'd put on a gravestone, the second verse is a resurrection.

I'm going to do up my house. I am. I'm not going to be lodger any more. I'm going to paint my house and make a garden. I'm really going to belong. I'm going to commit. It's a crazy day. It's supposed to be the beginning of peace. I want to believe it's going to be OK. And it will be.

Tom Paulin

Paulin, 45, a poet, grew up in Belfast but now lives and teaches at Oxford.

The prospect - the sacral prospect - of peace is hard to believe possible after 25 years. John Hume has bravely withstood the many vicious attacks on him which began last summer in sections of the British and Irish press, but it is difficult to predict what the results of today's ceasefire will be.

My hope is that Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party will courageously lead the Unionist family away from the ambush that Sinn Fein and the British government have been preparing for the Unionists in their secret talks. Closer ties with the Irish Republic should not diminish the values which those of us who adhere to the principles of the Glorious Revolution hold dear. It is time to stop harping on the acknowledged failures of the Northern Irish state and to start seeking ways of reforming the Irish Republic.

The founders of the Northern Irish state - Sir James Craig and Sir Edward Carson - did not anticipate that partition would be permanent, but it would be foolish to start waving the Irish tricolour over the prospect of a unitary Irish state. Traditional Irish nationalism has failed to respect or understand Unionist values - I hope that nationalists can now be peacefully educated into an understanding of those values. Perhaps the nub of the problem is that Unionists trust no one, not even themselves.

Rita Duffy

Duffy, 35, is a painter. She lives in Belfast and has been the Ulster Museum's artist in residence.

I think it's great, I'm delighted, but then I'm a very optimistic person by nature. Yesterday I was on the Falls Road and was struck by the fact that there was an enormous amount of bustle and people were smiling - I'm a very visual person, so this seems pretty good to me. I think that people know generally, especially in the republican community, that violence and the IRA campaign reached their sell-by date a couple of years ago; since last Christmas really there's been a mood of hope. Of course, I'm not naive enough to think it's all over, but I think we have taken the first tentative step towards something that will take us into the 21st century.

As far as my art goes, I work from a very emotional standpoint, and a lot of my previous work was very strongly affected by the political situation. But my work has changed a lot in the past year. I'm now looking at images from my childhood - looking at the attitudes and morals and ideals I received as a child, reviewing them and casting off what I see as negative and confining, and to some extent reinventing myself. I think we all need to do some reinventing - the old labels will not serve us well for what we need to do now.

Through all the violence, all the 25 years of mayhem, women have been left behind. Maybe we'll be able to tackle some of the real issues now - issues of poverty, housing, jobs, and to start looking at the real politics. I think it's a very feminine thing that Sinn Fein did yesterday - after years of male anger and destructiveness, finally showing a more nurturing, more peaceable side.

Dermot Bolger

Bolger, 35, is a novelist and publisher in Dublin.

The first murder of these Troubles was by loyalists before the Provisionals even came into existence, and the last murder before the ceasefire was again by loyalists of a totally innocent Catholic, Shaun McDermott. The ignorance in Britain towards the North can be terrifying - I recently endured a tirade by a British publisher against 'those republican leaders like Ian Paisley'. Levels of loyalist violence have been just as sickening as the IRA's and we will have to see if Unionist paranoia will continue so that the slightest progress on any level will be regarded as a sell-out to be countered by genocide.

While utterly welcoming the IRA ceasefire, it has to be said that - after the physical suffering they took it upon themselves to inflict - one of the great IRA outrages was the notion that they were doing it in the name of nation. The average Irish person felt as much revulsion at any IRA murder as the average British person at the notion that somehow Shaun McDermott was slaughtered in their name.

While an important Northern leader, certainly up to now, in any straight vote for the presidency of the Irish Republic between Screaming Lord Sutch and Gerry Adams, Gerry Adams would have lost his deposit. The last IRA murder was of a Dublin criminal leader, the General. Although dressed up in war-paint, it was seen very clearly as one criminal gang muscling in on another. One effect of the ceasefire to be looked at from a Southern perspective is how much the IRA (or breakaway members) will now try to increase their share of protection rackets, drugs, porn videos, etc in the Republic.

Owen O'Neill

O'Neill, 37, stand-up comic and Perrier Award nominee, has lived in London since 1974.

I could be glib and say that my first reaction to the ceasefire was was 'There goes 15 minutes of material'. And I wondered about the poor Wolfe Tones and what they would do. Singing 'We want peace, we want peace' just doesn't have the same ring.

Disbelief is probably the reaction most people are having. It's hard to be optimistic about any sort of ceasefire. We've been there before. No one wants to do or say anything that will make them look foolish in two weeks' time. But I do feel optimism about this one. It's not knee-jerk; John Hume, Sinn Fein and the government have been talking and planning. I did fear there would be a split amongst the Provisionals - that could happen - but it seems like there's a united front. If the hardliners continue down their road now, they'll probably be taken out by the Provisionals. It's too much to go back on. So I believe in this ceasefire more than any other.

But listening to Sir Patrick Mayhew say things like 'After 12 tonight there will be an end to all bombing and violence' that's so naive. Did the UVF call a ceasefire?

But now is the time to listen to the Unionists, to take their hopes and wishes into consideration. If we ignore them, we ignore at our peril. And the Protestant middle class is going to be badly hit. The prison warders, the UDR, the RUC . . . they'll be out of work, which means more problems.

The Catholic church has a big part to play. It can calm Protestant fears of church dominance by integrating schools. Actually, this is the opportunity for social change across the board. Catholics in the south are sick of the Catholic church. They want divorce, they want the church to relent on condoms and birth control.

But the most difficult thing will be asking people to forget. It's a lot to ask of mothers and fathers who have lost children. You can't forget overnight. Forgetting takes courage.

John Banville

Banville, 48, lives in Dublin. He is a novelist and literary editor of the Irish Times.

The first thing to be said is that anything that will save even one life has to be welcomed. That said, however, one can't help but remember that there have been other ceasefires, although they were ramshackle affairs and this one has the air of strategy.

However, it would be dangerous to credit the IRA and Sinn Fein with great cunning and foresight - they may be as uncertain about the future as anyone else.

Those of us who have always thought of the IRA, and indeed Sinn Fein, as neo-fascist, are deeply worried by the kind of respectability they have won now in Dublin, London and Washington.

Gerry Adams is obviously a clever and able man, but as a writer I think it behoves those people dealing with him to read his short stories, where one sees the streak of sentimentality that marks the totalitarian mind: the kind of thing that Nabokov called poshlost.

We in the South of course wonder what kind of wider activities Sinn Fein will now engage in in Ireland as a whole. With this new-found respectability, their appeal to voters in a country suffering from grave economic troubles and a very high unemployment rate may well now prove very much stronger than when they were allied to an active terrorist organisation, and one wonders if Albert Reynolds and his partner in coalition, Dick Spring, realise the kind of political genie that has been let out of the bottle.

All the same, despite one's reservations, despite even one's fears, one would be very cold-hearted indeed not to feel at least some jubilation and a large degree of relief at this time.

(Photographs omitted)

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