Bad enough was the bomb itself - 700lb of explosives packed into a car on the town's Market Square. Even by the exacting standards of Northern Ireland, that is lethally substantial - "700 pounds of hate", in the words of one local headline. In some ways just as depressing, however, was that nobody in Lisburn seemed surprised, except, perhaps, at the naivety of the questioner. "Of course it doesn't surprise me. And there'll be more of these," was a typical reaction. As he swept up the broken glass, one council worker declared flatly: "I never felt any optimism. There'll never be a ceasefire."
Local scepticism runs deep. "I don't think anything," said one shopkeeper in Lisburn, wearily clearing up debris. "It's been going on for too long." Cheryl, a travel agent, had been out of town for the day; when she returned she found her office locked. "Where have they all gone?" she shouted across the street. "Haven't you heard the news?" came the reply. She hadn't - but seemed more troubled by the lack of office keys than shocked by the bomb.
Only weeks after the historic Good Friday peace agreement, the most frequent reaction to this huge bomb was little more than a depressed shrug.
There were a handful of optimists in Northern Ireland last week. A delegation from the African National Congress had arrived, to share its experiences regarding the challenges in dismantling apartheid. On the stage of Ulster Hall in central Belfast, there were hugs and kisses as Sinn Fein greeted the South African delegation. Cyril Ramaphosa, chief negotiator for the ANC in the transition to democracy, shared the platform with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
SINN FEIN is understandably keen to bask in some of the ANC's international limelight. But the ANC was also ready to return the compliment. Matthew Phosa, prime minister of eastern Transvaal and one of the visiting delegation, seemed close to endorsing the view of Gerry Adams as an Irish Mandela. He told a rapturous Sinn Fein audience that he regarded Mr Adams as "Mr President": "I'm in his country. He's my leader."
Other political parties were wary of the fact that the visit was hosted by Sinn Fein. The mainly Catholic SDLP, whose leader John Hume played the key role in kick-starting the peace process, contrasted the "unfortunate" fact that this was a Sinn Fein-hosted visit to Ulster with an earlier ANC-hosted visit to South Africa by representatives of all the main political parties, where views were exchanged against a more neutral backdrop. Still, few wanted to rebuff the South Africans directly. There was a meeting with David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionists, and a planned meeting (which fell through because the ANC delegation left Belfast earlier than expected) with the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.
THE KISSING and hugging between the ANC and Sinn Fein was more than just show. Following a visit to the Maze prison, Mr Phosa explicitly compared the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh to the ANC political prisoners on Robben Island, whose "only crime was to fight for freedom". Even the more conciliatory Mr Ramaphosa implied an identification between Long Kesh and Robben Island. The ANC's visit to the Maze was, he said, "a particularly moving occasion".
Mr Ramaphosa also emphasised the importance, however, of a "win-win" philosophy for those in search of a peaceful solution. In that respect, he attempted to persuade those in Sinn Fein who might have doubts about the Good Friday agreement that it was worth signing up to, even if they were not happy with everything that it contained. Sinn Fein holds a special conference, or ard fheis, next Sunday, where it must endorse the Good Friday deal. In a clear attempt to bolster the position of Mr Adams by flattering comparisons, Mr Ramaphosa declared: "One of the key leaders who started the armed struggle [in South Africa] was also the key person who started negotiations. He had the vision and foresight to sit down with our enemies." He emphasised: "Did we win everything? No. We got what South Africa needed at that point in time ... Negotiations are about give and take. Had we wanted everything or nothing, we would have ended up with nothing."
Two important sticking points in Ulster today remain the decommissioning of weapons and the release of prisoners. Both questions were enormously sensitive in South Africa, too. Mr Ramaphosa points out that the the ANC was not enthusiastic about racist murderers being allowed on to the streets. None the less, this olive-branch tit-for-tat - for ANC prisoners and white killers alike to be released - was the only way forward. The toughest issues, he argued, can sometimes be put temporarily to one side, while the substance of a peace deal is agreed. "Once we'd decided that, it became less and less of an issue." Despite the qualms of many in Northern Ireland about releasing convicted killers, Mr Ramaphosa made it clear that the failure to do so could scupper everything. "If agreement on releasing prisoners hadn't been reached, we wouldn't be where we are today."
It seems likely that the popular vote on 22 May will be in favour of the Good Friday deal. Some are edging towards a belief that change may finally be on the way, but outside Belfast especially there is still considerable pessimism. In the university town of Coleraine, for example - almost untouched by violence in recent years - many are wary of even raising the subject with friends, fearful that a political discussion might open up rifts between Catholic and Protestant that remain invisible in day-to-day life. In the words of Robert, a 23-year-old psychology student, "People are afraid to bring it up in case it spoils things." He is pleased at the ANC involvement, arguing: "That's what we need. I would love there to be peace. But people are quite intransigent."
The continuing violence has included, in addition to the Lisburn car bomb, further political murders since Good Friday. The arguments between the politicians have been fierce, including sharp divisions within Mr Trimble's own party. Even if Sinn Fein votes yes on 10 May and the people vote yes on 22 May, the problems will be far from solved.
NONE OF THIS, however, proves that the optimists are wrong. In South Africa, despite the enormous problems that remain, the warnings a few years ago of imminent apocalypse, including a far-right backlash or civil war, have proved to be wide of the mark. Eventually, many began to understand that mutual tolerance could have attractions for both sides - the win- win that Mr Ramaphosa constantly preaches.
The hope must be that this will become true of Northern Ireland too. For the moment, the Union Jacks and Irish tricolours that are dotted across the countryside - perched like political storks, on the end of long sticks stuck to the top of lampposts - are not a source of pride and celebration, nor of national diversity, as in many parts of the world. Rather, they are an act of defiance, like a "hate" knuckle tattoo.
Gradually, people are beginning to believe that things might yet change. In the words of David Dalziell, a landscape architect from Coleraine, "During the talks, I didn't expect anything. Now I'm more hopeful. We can't go back to the Troubles." Already, despite the car bombs, despite the killings, the first shoots are emerging from the still frosty political soil.
Delicate they undoubtedly are. Even the unflappable John Hume reacted impatiently when it was reported last week that a Danish MEP had nominated him for a Nobel peace prize. Hume pointed out that the nomination was "premature", when no peace had yet been achieved.
Mr Ramaphosa, however, is a true believer. "This is a major, major breakthrough. I never thought we would reach this stage so quickly. I was here two years ago, and thought the mood was pretty gloomy. The problem seemed intractable - a lot worse than our situation. Now it's a different mood altogether." Perhaps a more widespread belief among citizens in the province will come only after the miracles are in place, not while the miracles are still on the way. For the moment, Northern Ireland is still wrapped in caution, and looks set to stay that way for some time to come. In the words of one man in Coleraine: "There have been so many false starts. People get hardened. But at least there's a ray of hope."Reuse content