Another good Friday dawns and...

THERE was a mood of optimism and hope on the streets of Belfast yesterday. The dark pessimism of the past week, particularly among Protestants, had been replaced by a much brighter future. Some said they refused to be afraid any longer, others talked about a future where their children could grow up normally without the fatalism which has seeped through society in 30 years of violence.

In the loyalist heartland of the Shankill and the nationalist stronghold of the Falls Road the general consensus was that there would be a convincing "Yes" vote in today's referendum. And whatever happened, nothing would ever be the same again. Too much had happened since the talks which resulted in the Good Friday agreement begun.

There was also a surprising lack of bitterness about the conflict of the past. Instead, there was a sense of regret for the futility and waste of young lives lost in a civil war just 55 minutes flight away from London.

"The blood that fell in the Falls is the same blood that fell here. The grief of mothers there is the grief they felt here," said 33-year-old Colin Huston sitting in a cafe on the Shankill Road. His father was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for an armed robbery to raise funds for the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association.

Mr Houston is now a minister of the church, married with a young son and daughter. He said: "They say this is all about religion. Well, my dream would be to have a church in the centre of Belfast where a thousand people can pray to their God whether they're Protestant or Catholic. The future for my children? It's brilliant. Dr [the Rev] Paisley has had his day, and can't keep on scaring us."

Ten yards along the road Jean Gilmore, 50, had bought and made a success of a electrical shop, Starlighting, in the last two years. "Business has been good because of the ceasefire, we can build on that," she said. "But if the bombings and shootings start again then all this would have been for nothing. I shall be voting `Yes'; you've got to give this a chance."

Her friend Terry Jameson is a firefighter who has seen only too often the destruction caused by the paramilitaries. A 48-year-old with three children, one at university, he said: "Of course we have doubts, especially about things like decommissioning of weapons. As long as the arms are there the paramilitaries can use them. But you can't live in fear for the rest of your life. We must have peace, we just need to go forward."

A few miles away on the Falls Road, sitting in the sunshine on the pavement on a furniture shop's sofa, 63-year-old Malachy Doherty has seen too much suffering to let political dogma get in the way of peace.

He said: "They say this will not lead to a free Ireland. Well, frankly I don't care as long as we have peace. I suppose some like Mr Paisley will be saying that this will lead to a united Ireland. We want to say to him all we want to do is live in peace."

The murals are changing on the houses of the Falls Road. The martial images of men with guns are being replaced with more peaceful social and political ones. Robert Thompson, 33, standing in front of one, said that he was not totally sure about the agreement but would probably vote "Yes".

Paul McDonagh, a 25-year-old pharmacist has no such doubts. He knew from Good Friday that he would be backing to the accord. He also believed the visits of the Prime Minister had helped to give direction to the "Yes" campaign. He added: "The `No' campaign had a long time to plan what they were doing, the people behind the `Yes' campaign were too busy trying to reach a settlement.

"The problem is you've got a situation where David Trimble [leader of the Ulster Unionists] is on the same side as Gerry Adams [leader of Sinn Fein], quite a difficult proposition. But I think there will be a good `Yes' vote."

Kieran Corr, 20, and his girlfriend, Elaine McGreevy, will be voting on opposite sides. Mr Corr, a painter and decorator, is in the "No" camp. He said: "This will not lead to a united Ireland, it will be like 1916 all over again. Peace will only come when the English leave this island."

Ms McGreevy, a 27-year-old receptionist with a two-year-old daughter, Zara, countered: "What you are saying will just lead to another hundred years of troubles. The Protestants have got their rights and we must recognise that. You can't go through life without making compromises. I shall certainly be voting yes."

Back at the Shankill, Dorothy Simpson and Brian Newcombe, both 22, with an 18-month old son, are still undecided but veering towards "Yes". Ms Simpson said: "I find all this a bit confusing. I'm also worried that the guns have not been handed in. But I have got a young child and I want him to grow up safely, and I'll do anything to make sure of that."

Kieran Corr and Elaine McGreevy, with Zara, 3: They will be voting on opposite sides. Mr Corr, for the `No' camp: `Peace will only come when the English leave this island'

Dorothy Simpson and Brian Newcombe, both 22, with their 18-month- old son: Ms Simpson said, `I find all this confusing ... I'm worried the guns have not been handed in'

Colin Huston, 33, a church minister with a young son and daughter: `The future for my children? It's brilliant. Doctor Paisley has had his day, and can't keep scaring us'

Terry Jameson, 48, firefighter: `Of course we have doubts, but you can't live in fear for the rest of your life'

Paul McDonagh, a 25-year-old pharmacist: ` The `No' campaign had a long time to plan what they were doing'

Malachy Doherty, 63: `We want to say to Mr Paisley "All we want to do is live in peace".'

Robert Thompson, 33: `Not totally sure of the agreement, but will probably vote `Yes'.

Jean Gilmore, 50, who runs a successful electrical shop: `Business has been good because of the ceasefire - we can build on that' Photographs: Brian Thompson

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