Great mood that drained away

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The Independent Online
In the centre of Franklin Hunter's workshop, Renaissance Ironworks, in east Belfast, is a high-backed iron chair that he refuses to sell - it is the chair used by President Clinton during his visit nearly a year ago.

Mr Hunter, 59, talks eagerly of the visit, as do most of the businesses on the two-year-old Connswater Industrial Estate. Halfway through the ceasefire, the visit was a potent symbol of renewed optimism and the rejuvenation that had begun to take place in even the poorest areas of Northern Ireland.

"There was a buoyancy, a great mood," Mr Hunter says of the US President's visit. "Everyone was here to see."

Yesterday afternoon in east Belfast, however, the mood was rather different. As the full significance of the IRA's admission of the Lisburn bombings sank in, it was not one of shock but of resignation. After the tensions of the past few months, most people feel the IRA's actions had an air of inevitability. What worried them was how to stop it escalating.

Mr Hunter, who describes himself as apolitical, said the problem lay with the intransigence of politicians. If it was left to the "ordinary man", peace might progress. "We've got to get through with all these monosyllabic politicians - all you hear is them saying 'no, no, no'. We should kick them out. It's politics that's keeping the people apart."

Connswater Estate is something of a symbol of change. Situated in Protestant east Belfast, one side is overlooked by the grim facade of the former UDA headquarters. On the other is the Connswater Shopping Centre, a thriving, modern mall.

Business has been good for the small firms here since the ceasefire and yesterday most appeared determined to keep it like that. At Irvine Office Equipment, a woman who declined to be named, said she and her colleagues wanted to "just keep on with ordinary life".

Whether the loyalists would escalate the situation would depend, she said, on "how far the IRA were going to push it. That's why they've got to keep talking". This view was reiterated by a spokesman for the local enterprise agency. "It was euphoric here last year," he said. "You hope they'll keep talking."

For Mr Hunter, provided the politicians take heed, there is hope for the peace process. "I think people will eventually come to realise that there's merit on both sides. I still view it with optimism," he said.