Ireland unites in demand for peace

End of the ceasefire: Marchers fill streets of Dublin and Belfast in show of strength against men of violence
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Ireland Correspondent

Tens of thousands of people took to the the streets of Belfast and Dublin yesterday to demand the return of their peace.

It was a gesture against despair, a denial that a return to the Troubles was inevitable, a statement that they were not ready to accept that hope had gone and that a new cycle of violence looms.

In Belfast, police estimated that 20,000 people braved the February chill to register their concern in a mass gathering outside the city hall.

A young woman explained: "When the ceasefire ended I was sickened, sad, angry, sickened. This is an opportunity for us to have our say, a show of numbers that we want peace."

A man, wheeling a pram, said: "We're here to support the whole peace initiative. The hard men won't listen but the majority of us will have our say."

His wife added: "It's better to do something than just say it's no use. It's better to try anyway. It's not political, it's saying we want peace."

Three young men said: "It's our chance to be part of something, some little thing we can do for a big process. It's worth a try."

A middle-aged man chipped in: "It's condemning violence and expressing a wish that the politicians will get off their asses and get moving."

Three elderly ladies said: "Oh, we want peace, we want peace and we want them to talk. We want everybody to talk - it's either that or it's more trouble." Another woman, a nurse, said simply: "We're here to pray."

It was the most undemonstrative of demonstrations. The city hall is associated with noisy occasions: it was here that Gerry Adams was applauded when he said the IRA "haven't gone away, you know". Here the Rev Ian Paisley famously boomed out that loyalists would "never, never, never" accept Dublin interference. Here Bill Clinton was rapturously received when he proclaimed, less than three months ago, that peace had come to Ireland.

Yesterday, however, it was simply a silent vigil - no speeches, no rhetoric, no thudding drums or shrilling fifes. The communal experience of 10 minutes of shared silence seemed to make people feel better, and despite the cold they were afterwards reluctant go home right away.

Chanting and singing began; and after several minutes of chanting "peace now" a prolonged round of applause broke out. People relaxed; there were more smiles to be seen; there had been a release of emotion. It was non- political, non-condemnatory, like a big open-air secular prayer meeting.

As people started to drift away, the man with the pram said: "It went all right, I thought: a reasonable turnout, hopefully the message will get across. It's a statement anyway, for what it's worth."

An old lady said: "Very good, very impressive - the quietness and people willing, willing peace."

More than 50,000 people turned out for a similar demonstration in Dublin and a further 25,000 in Cork. Smaller gatherings were held at 18 other centres across Ireland from Letterkenny in the far north-west to Gorey in the south-east, home of the IRA bomber Ed O'Brien killed while carrying the IRA's Aldwych bomb.

In Belfast, many of the people walking away seemed to have a new spring in their step, clearly drawing from the occasion a certain uplift and taking home a stronger feeling that perhaps all was not yet lost.