Mistrust mars Ulster hope

The IRA resumed its ceasefire yesterday. No one was celebrating. By David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
No one in Northern Ireland was indifferent to the IRA cessation of violence which came into effect at noon yesterday; but nearly everyone pretended to be.

Nearly everyone simply stayed home, lounged in the garden, visited the pub or the supermarket: no cheers went up, no champagne popped, no church bells rang. It was a most understated ceasefire.

If few emotions were expressed it was not because they did not exist: rather it was that there were too many of them, and that they ran too deep. There is hope for the future, relief and a deep desire for peace; but there is also bitterness, suspicion, fear and even rejection.

There was the saintly father of a murdered Catholic girl, 19-year-old Bernadette Martin, shot in bed by loyalists a week ago for having a Protestant boyfriend. In the depths of his grief, he found the courage to say he would be elated if she were the last victim of the Troubles.

But the experience of the last cessation, in 1994, was that a ceasefire is only a beginning. That one lasted 17 months, and no one is betting on how long this one might endure.

The effect of the last ceasefire was to drastically decrease the killing rate, to bring new hope where there was none, to give a glimpse of a new and brighter future. But it only reduced the rate of death, it did not end the toll.

It did not end the so-called punishment beatings; it did not lead to the dismantling of the paramilitary organisations, republican or loyalist; it did not remove the poisons that pollute community relations; it did not bring a political settlement into being. Many Unionists will say, in fact, that it was bogus; most nationalists will retort that an imperfect ceasefire still had great worth. The arguments over those points, familiar from 1994, have already resurfaced.

There was no euphoria yesterday, but then people have forgotten that there was none in 1994 either. The Independent recorded at the time: "People did not dance in the streets. They said, `I'll believe it when I see it'. They said, `I wonder what the murdering bastards will get out of it'. They said, `It's a con'."

The IRA is putting the same deal on the table again: soldiers, police, town centres and Canary Wharf are no longer at risk, but the organisation will not disband or hand over guns, and will never say that the cessation is permanent. London and Dublin have accepted these terms; the Unionist community is wondering whether it should too.

In the meantime, there will be a sharp rise in political discord as Unionist politicians decide whether to sit at the table with Sinn Fein or whether to risk walking into the wilderness: each course carries huge risks.

Yesterday seemed, however, to be mostly a day for quiet contemplation, rather than heated controversy or excitement.

Up the Falls Road, just after midday, Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein told a crowd of less than a 100, outside a heavily-fortified RUC base: "We choose to mark the first minutes of the ceasefire here because the ceasefire will bring our freedom, will bring the realisation of our hopes and our aspirations, will bring equality, will bring the release of prisoners. When you look around the crowd here today you see in so many of our faces the hopes for the future."

The faces did indeed reflect some hope, but there was no euphoria in sight. He did not promise them that this promised land would be achieved quickly; if he had, they would not have believed him. Instead they, like everyone else, hoped that a start had been made and that this cessation would be longer and more productive than the last. But they also conveyed that the road, wherever it led, would be a long and arduous one, with no guarantee of ultimate success.

Furthermore, success will entail from every side compromise on fundamental positions of a type which Ulster has never yet seen: there is no other way. This sobering knowledge helps explain why it was such a subdued ceasefire.