After the peace, we don't want the bad old days away

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The Independent Online
AFTER the dust had settled and the shock of the London Docklands bombing had filtered through, the overwhelming mood among loyalists getting their Saturday morning "messages" (doing the shopping) on the East Belfast Newtownards Road was the hope that the blast was a one-off spectacular.

For many standing in the shadow of the two giant cranes of Harland and Wolff shipyard, the very symbol of working-class Protestantism, the taste of peace had been so sweet it was something they clung to dearly.

"It was a lot calmer around here," said Darren Lockhart, 22, an office worker. "You could answer your door at night without wondering who it was: without fear."

For Jacqueline Burton, 36, with five children aged six to 19, that security meant she felt able to visit Belfast city centre without a care or send the kids to the local ice rink, in stark contrast to the years of violence.

"You always knew when something bad was going to happen around here," she said.

"It used to be that 'so and so was going to do this or that tonight'. You knew from the atmosphere on the road. It would be clammy and there would be too many people hanging about."

Peace had brought a confidence that allowed her to mix easily with her Catholic neighbours yards away on the other side of a peace line in the Short Strand area.

It also enabled her children to go on exchange visits to schools on the other side of the religious divide.

"I loved it for them at Christmas when they went to the carol services at each other's schools," said Mrs. Burton. "They had been trying it before the ceasefire, but it really took off afterwards because the kids were not bickering any more."

So it was that Friday night's about-face by the IRA came as a hammer blow to a community that was still finding its feet in what it really believed was a new era.

"When I heard it on the TV my stomach dropped to my toes," said Ann Downes, 59. "I just felt like crying. I never watched so much TV in my life as I did that night."

Equally alarmed was Norman Gilmore, 54, a sales representative.

"It was such a shock to everyone, especially as they were just getting used to walking around freely," he said. "I hope it's not the end of the ceasefire. They can't revert back to the bad old days, we have come too far."

Yet like many on the Protestant side, he believed that even if the bombing was a one-off to show the Government the IRA was still a potent force, it was now more important than ever that the Republicans hand over their weapons before talks start.

"Until they decommission their guns, they are holding the Government to ransom," said Mr Gilmore.

"They are blackmailing the Government by saying that they will return to violence if they don't get what they want. That's more apparent than ever now, with this bomb."

But a few, even in this loyalist bastion, are prepared to lay at least part of the blame for the breakdown at John Major's door.

"I think it could be because of his refusal to get involved with talks," said Ann Cooke, 51. "I think the Government could have done more."

An underlying fear is that the disintegration of the peace process could bring the loyalist gunmen back on the streets. "Since the IRA has started again there is nothing to stop them now," said Paul Wilson, 30. "The only way out for them is to keep on going with the violence. Then the loyalists will start again too."

Some believe there never was a ceasefire, merely a fragile, uneasy truce that was always destined to collapse.

"You only understand that if you live in this community," said Mr Lockhart. "You have still got the fellas in the organisations. That was never going to change. There are a lot of hoods, and there is far too much money in it for them to stop."

Any doubts about his perspective are quickly dispelled by the garish propaganda murals that adorn gable end walls, depicting hooded UVF and UFF volunteers clutching rifles under the legend : "Still Defending Ulster, We Will Always be Ready."