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Irish peace talks: Bitter experience puts hope on hold

FOR at least an hour yesterday afternoon the sun was blazing in the Falls Road as Tricolors, tied to every other lamppost fluttered wildly and the wind kicked up the dust.

Kathleen McPeake was heading home from the shops with the youngest of her three sons. "I don't know if there can ever be an agreement," she said. "There is talk of compromise but things here have been the same for so long I don't know if people can agree."

"Things" on the Falls Road in west Belfast, refer to what the republican community sees as the continuing intransigence of the Protestants.

As individuals they might be very nice people, but as a community, how can you trust them? It was the same in their parents' day and in the days of their parents' parents as well. In this way, the new oral history continues.

Not that Mrs McPeake, 51, is overly negative. "Something has to be done. My three children were brought up in the Troubles and I don't want it to be the same for my grandchildren." But while she desperately hopes for a fair settlement, like so many others her hopes are tempered by scepticism.

As she spoke an army patrol emerged from the RUC station on the other side of the street. Half a dozen soft-faced boys in camouflage dodged down the road, eyes darting left and right, guns to their shoulders. Everyone looked 17 years old.

Mrs McPeake didn't blink. It might have been another cliched image of Northern Ireland, but for her it is a way of life. A little further into the estate at the BLT Bakery a girl was making sandwiches while the radio played Bruce Springsteen.

"I don't think many people are really bothered what happens," she said, carefully spreading the slices with margarine from a large plastic tub. "I have got Protestant friends, I go disco-dancing with them. It makes no difference to me."

But it would be wrong to try and make some simple distinction between the views of one generation and the next in the nationalist community, and worse still to try and portray the community as speaking with one voice. Every person seems to have a different opinion and every person a different perspective.

One man, a self-employed welder, talked of his support for the extremist breakaway groups such as Continuity IRA and the INLA. He said he thought they were doing a good job "whacking" the loyalists.

Ann Bradley, who works in a newsagent's, recalled how her brother was murdered by the loyalists in 1972, and his body left in the Protestant Shankill Estate.

"But I don't think all people from the Shankill are bad people," she said. "There are a lot of good people."

Bronach Best, a 12-year-old heading home from school in her brown uniform, told how she preferred All Saints to the Spice Girls. And she added: "I think there should be peace in the world and we can all be friends and live together."

The sun did not last long. By 5pm, a light snow shower had blown in from the mountains - and in the shadow of the euphemistically titled "Peace Wall", Lorraine Lidester, 19, told how she dreamt of moving out of the province when she finished her business administration course.

"A lot of people want to get out," she said.

But would a settlement 10 miles away at Stormont Castle encourage her to stay? "Yes," she said. "I think it might."