Ireland: Hope wins over pessimism

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"THIS IS the day when peace has come - if we're lucky. It's a brilliant feeling. Hopefully, my kids will grow up with something different."

Jim Smith, a lorry driver from the Catholic Falls district of Belfast, voiced a hope yesterday which had until now seemed unreal. "To think that Falls people will walk on the Shankill - and Shankill people on the Falls." He hopes the distrust can finally lift. "I want to see younger people never having to worry, looking over their shoulders."

Jim Smith was not alone in feeling confused by the historic change that has crept up on Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement was greeted with enormous scepticism. But as the results of last week's referendum were announced yesterday afternoon, there was a cautious realisation that the impossible has now finally become real.

The politicians talked of a historic day - and, for once, it was not political hype. On the streets, there was more caution. As one man said: "In theory, it should make me happy. It has got to be a good thing. But it still worries me, what's coming up."

With the 71 per cent vote in favour of the peace agreement, the unwieldy supertanker of Northern Ireland politics seems to have turned irrevocably in favour of conciliation.

Many people changed their minds at the last moment. During recent weeks, the ayes had it, the nays had it - and, above all, the don't-knows had it. Many Protestants especially knew that they must give up something for the potential gain of peace. They did not know if the loss was worth the potential gain.

On Albert Bridge Road in Protestant east Belfast, Stuart, a 22-year-old engineer, declared: "I hesitated in recent weeks - the release of [terrorist] prisoners and that. But you have to make sacrifices. Five minutes before I voted, I wasn't sure. I was thinking about voting No. But I thought: what will happen then? At least now, there'll be something to look forward to."

The Unionist paper, the News Letter, played its role in that respect, too. Its wholehearted endorsement of the peace settlement - "Say yes, and say it loud" - undoubtedly helped to sway some still hesitant Unionists who feared that they were signing their own political death warrants. Others said that they were affected by Tony Blair.

Even on yesterday's historic day, the attention of many was focused elsewhere. While camera crews and journalists gathered in the King's Hall in south Belfast for the count, the crowds gathered in the city centre for more pressing matters - to watch the Lord Mayor's Parade.

Greg Crummy, 31, was cautiously upbeat. "It's only the start. But now we can hope we are going somewhere." Others at the parade were contemptuous, like Billy, a 40-year-old welder, who said: "It sounds good. But how can we have peace with prisoners on the streets? People have been fooled, blackmailed. They'll find out to their cost."

Illustrative of the contradictions at the heart of Ulster was the predicament of Ally, a Protestant student who said on Friday that he was planning to vote No, but who added he would be pleased with a large Yes vote. "If it's a big Yes, I'd celebrate - because then the deal would have a better chance of working." "No" sometimes reflected the bitter certainty that Northern Ireland never has a happy ending, while concealing a secret hope that things might turn out well.

Some retain that deep pessimism. One 19-year-old woman angrily insisted yesterday: "They should have voted No. There'll never be peace. So why vote Yes?" Just a few weeks ago, that deep and self-fulfilling pessimism was widespread. But the swing away from the no-sayers was, in the end, dramatic. For most voters, the No chasm looked deeper and more deadly than the potential Yes chasm.

Nobody in Northern Ireland is under any illusions. Even if the Troubles are over, the political trouble is not. But the changes run deep, even among those who might be expected to remain most negative.

The Ulster Volunteer Force, associated with some of the most notorious acts of loyalist violence, piped its way proudly through east Belfast yesterday. Supporters walked alongside, rattling tins to raise funds. Jim White, 35, one of the tin-rattlers, was clear why he finally decided to vote Yes. "I was a bit dubious about the agreement. Then I changed my mind. I've got two kids of my own, and I'm fed up with saying no. They need a future."

If there are enough Jim Whites - and the result suggests there are - Ulster might have a hope.