No one wants the peace jeopardised

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The Independent Online
SOME POLITICIANS may object to the restraint of Mo Mowlam's adjudication on the IRA cease-fire. But many in Northern Ireland's most scarred districts sound protective of today's relative peace.

They echo the characteristic Mowlam frankness of "the peace we have now is imperfect but it's better than none". Some cannot stomach the early release of prisoners or the idea of Sinn Fein ministers. Others find a comparison with the recent past shows the present, for all its flaws, in a hopeful light.

A number of men appeared in court yesterday charged with burglary offences in west Belfast. The charges related to an incident during which people were held captive in their own home. Courtroom formalities no doubt mask the distress for those involved but, before the ceasefire, stories with a similar outline would have gone on to describe how gunmen held a family captive, set up a sniper rifle and waited for an army patrol to pass, then shot and killed a soldier from a bedroom window.

North and west Belfast between them account for well over half of all the violent deaths in the past 30 years.

These are the heartlands of paramilitarism, producing large percentages of the victims as well as sizeable shares of the prison population. Few here imagined that once ceasefires were in place peace would fall ready- made from the air.

Even the early release of prisoners, judged to be a cornerstone of republican and loyalist support for the ceasefires, and which Ms Mowlam was urged by critics to stop, has had mixed effects.

Schemes set up to help ex-prisoners find skills and work struggle to find employers willing to trust former paramilitaries. The suicide of a prominent loyalist released after a lengthy sentence for murder was attributed by his friends to depression and guilt.

Critics suggest that scores of people convicted of serious offences, including murder, have been walking free after only a few years in jail. More than half of the 500-plus prison population has been released. Those with life sentences had all served at least 12 years. Re- integration is far from easy for former long-term prisoners.

Brendan Bradley, the organiser of a redevelopment scheme in Ardoyne, a north Belfast black-spot, points up the positive effects of the scheme. The paramilitaries have presented it as an achievement, after all. "Stopping releases would only strengthen those who want a return to violence."

It is an argument that jars on many of those bereaved by violence. Others make remarkable statements. The father of 22-year-old Charles Bennett, shot by the IRA, pleaded that his son's death should not be used as a pretext to have Sinn Fein thrown out of talks. Some commentators suggested the family had been intimidated into making the plea. Mr Bennett called that disgusting. "These politicians, they haven't an idea. Let them live where we do for a while and then maybe they'll understand why so many want to see the peace process working. We've had it up to our teeth."

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