NORTHERN IRELAND CEASEFIRE SIX MONTHS ON : Across the peace line: a tale of two families

The Butlers and the Grays may be on opposite sides of the religious divide, but they have a great deal in common, writes Mary Braid
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It took just a few weeks of peace to put taxi-driver Charlie Butler out of business. Remove the bomb and the bullet, and the people, it appears, feel safe in their own cars once again. "There's no longer any fear of your car being hijacked or blown up," explained Mr Butler, 40, a father of five, who operated from the top of the Protestant Shankill Road, in working-class west Belfast. "We withstood six years of hijacking, robbery and murder but we understood the effects of peace very quickly."

Going out of business was, he said, a small price to pay for peace. The Butlers had paid a high one for Ulster's war. In the living room of his modest terraced house, one of the conflict's innocent victims tugged at his trousers. Lauren, two, was the daughter of Mr Butler's niece. In October 1993 she and her brother Darren, 11, lost their parents and older sister in the Shankill bomb. The atrocity devastated the Butlers. Mr Butler's sister Evelyn and brother-in-law Bobbie, the children's grandparents, who live next door, were back to making up baby bottles in their mid- 50s.

At the Butlers' home, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, was not long off the box. His trip to the United States, and St Patrick's Day dinner with Bill Clinton, was testing the family's tolerance - but not their support for the peace process.

"America sees him as a hero and freedom fighter but to us he will always be the man who gave just cause to the Shankill bomb by carrying the coffin of one of the bombers," said Mr Butler. "But we accept the day is coming fast when the Government will have to speak to Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams. You have to accept that if you want peace."

Peace has brought the Butlers, young and old, a taste of freedom and relaxation - and a raft of small but personally significant benefits. For Mr Butler's son Glen, 16, who has known nothing but the Troubles, newspapers have suddenly become a source of pleasure. "It's great to get up in the morning, knowing the paper won't be full of the murders of innocent people," he said.

In the past few months the teenager has been freed from the cage that confined him, and his father before him. The city centre is little more than a mile from west Belfast's Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. Yet sectarianism manacled members of the warring communities to their homes. Now Glen stays out later and ventures into town with his mates.

To his mother Linda, 41, his new freedom also brings a liberation from worry. "The worry that your children are going to be found dead if they go out has lifted," she said. "You never had to be a terrorist in Belfast to be injured or killed. Anyone would do."

Yet integration is not without its teething problems. The difficulties the politicians face in organising peace talks are mirrored in everyday life. Until the peace, Glen had never met a Belfast Catholic. He has now become a regular at a new "mixed" club for the under-18s in the city centre. "There's been a lot of fighting and the club closed down," admitted Glen. "But it's going to open again."

Mr Butler is not discouraged. "This isn't like the movies. We are not going to suddenly walk towards each other across the peace line, all soft focus with nice background music. There is a lot to do."

Life for the adult Butlers is also loosening up. Mr Butler always had a few Catholic friends but 18 months ago Mrs Butler had none. Change began with meetings between the families of the victims of the Shankill bomb and relatives of those who died in the vicious "trick or treat" revenge attack by loyalist paramilitaries on Greysteel nine days later. A few weeks ago Mrs Butler branched out further when she joined a mixed club in the city centre where she now "sits with Catholics".

The peace has brought about a revival of interest in politics on the Shankill, led, ironically, by the fringe Unionist parties closely associated with loyalist paramilitaries. Mr Butler, while remaining fiercely critical of all terrorists, argues that they are giving the Protestant working class its first strong voice. But he predicts that other "grassroots" parties, with no paramilitary connections, will eventually emerge to challenge the established Unionist politicians who infuriated him with their outright rejection of the framework document. "The Unionist politicians have failed us badly."

Some Catholics have even ventured into the Shankill Road. Last month a few brave souls turned up for a football "chat show'' starring Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson. Yet Mr Butler admitted it would be a long time before he walked the Falls Road. "There's a ceasefire but terrorists are still there," he said.

A mile away in republican Ballymurphy, a few houses from where Gerry Adams was raised, Tony Gray, a father of three, expresses remarkably similar sentiments. He cannot believe he will ever walk down the Shankill Road. Outside Mr Gray's living-room window looms a 15ft brick and metal wall, winding into the distance. It has been completed since the ceasefire.

Rising above the ugly RUC barracks, across the road, the new peace line adds to the eyesore but Mr Gray, 33, and his wife Eileen, 37, are happy to have it. Sinn Fein supporters, like most of their neighbours, they still believe they need protection from ``the other side''.

To say that Mr Gray feared Protestants would be a monumental understatement. When his stomach ulcer burst at Christmas he was rushed to hospital in a loyalist part of east Belfast. Mrs Gray, her daughter Aisling, 11, and her sister Angela, 34, roared with laughter as he described again how nervous he had been about entering the area, even as a patient in peacetime. "He's lying in the back of the ambulance and I'm trying to get his Sinn Fein T-shirt off," giggled Mrs Gray.

Since peace was declared, Angela, a care worker, has made her first trip to the Shankill for more than 20 years. She says she "nearly died" the first time she was driven through the heart of the other side's territory to pick up a patient. Now she makes the trip twice a week. Without the peace, she would refuse. Her friend Anne-Marie thinks she is mad even now. "They don't want peace you know," she insisted. "Have you seen them on telly?"

Today the television news has delighted the Grays: 400 troops are pulling out of Ulster. Around Ballymurphy neat slogans demand demilitarisation and the disbanding of the RUC. A few streets away, a freshly painted mural shows a comic-looking British squaddie being transported across the Irish sea by a dove. "Time for peace, time to go," reads the inscription.

The Grays have survived the last 25 years by turning personal distress and tragedy into comedy. This week Mrs Gray joked that peace has simply brought a change of persecutor - TV licensing vans are venturing into estates that were once considered no-go areas.

Like the Butlers, they say the greatest benefit of the peace has been the relaxed atmosphere. They are particularly relieved for their children, Aisling, Anthony, 10 and Roslin, 7, who have all been caught in crossfire. Aisling still suffers trauma after she and her family were held hostage by republican terrorists when she was just four. "She can still remember every stitch she was wearing that day," said Mrs Gray. But Aisling, too, has learnt to joke. "Daddy, remember that day the potato van blew up and we all had baked potatoes?

While Mr Gray, who has been unemployed for 10 years, will hardly leave Ballymurphy, Aisling spent six weeks in the US last year as part of an American-run, cross-community project. She and Samantha, a Protestant girl from Belfast, shared the home of a rich American. The subjects of religion and politics were banned. Within days of Aisling's return, peace had broken out.

To Aisling the past six months have meant "no big bangs at the barracks and you don't have to evacuate your house any more".

Back on the Shankill, a once sceptical Mr Butler believes that the peace will last. "I think we've come too far to go back. People won't let that happen." And he is putting his money where his mouth is. Four months ago he moved into the amusements business and ignored the instinct to stay on the Shankill. He opened instead on the fringes of the city centre to attract both Catholics and Protestants. For peace to last he insists "it's the barriers in our minds we have to bring down".