Basking in sunshine and hope

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THE TWO policemen basked in the autumn sunshine of Belfast, relaxed and chatting to each other, writes David McKittrick. Their standard RUC revolvers were strapped to their sides but they carried no rifles and had removed their tunics to enjoy the sun. They had taken off their flak-jackets, and there they stood on the Falls Road, just opposite Divis Flats where so many soldiers and policemen have been killed over the last 25 years.

Not far away stood three of their colleagues, clearly belt-and-braces men: they wore no tunics but, just in case, they sported flak-jackets over their shirts. It was Day One of the IRA ceasefire, and already things were changing in west Belfast.

Further up the road something else had changed. On a large and prominent gable wall, which nobody travelling along the Falls could fail to notice, three men were working on the latest republican mural. One painted while another held the ladder and a third sat on an abandoned mattress and called out helpful suggestions.

This new work shows a series of building bricks bearing words such as 'freedom' and 'justice for all'. The top brick is marked 'peace'. There have been scores of wall- paintings in west Belfast, but this one had a profound significance which will not be lost on local people. This is because it covers a previous work which glorified the three members of the IRA shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar: in one coat of paint the message has been transformed from the cult of martyrdom to a new and constructive image.

A new tone is being set. In the loyalist backstreets, however, the grimmer message was one of business as usual. 'Kill all pan nationalists,' one new scrawl proclaimed. Another warned: 'The battle is only starting - UVF.' Over in republican Ardoyne, an Army foot patrol moved through the mean streets, keeping to a familiar routine. A soldier crouched into a ball at a street corner, as squaddies have been trained to do for 25 years. But after a few minutes he stood up and moved away from the wall, standing in full view in the street. No one in Belfast is permanently relaxing, or even completely relaxing, just yet.