Northern Ireland: `This deal will split Unionist movement'

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The Independent Online
IN THE staunch Unionist heartland of Comber nine miles south- east of Belfast is a grand war memorial to Major General Robert Rollo Gillespie.

"One shot more for the honour of Down," said the town's favourite son as he fell in battle at Kalunga in 1814. And yesterday, that stubborn spirit was much in evidence as details of the Hillsborough declaration reached the townsfolk.

Puzzlement and confusion were the initial reactions, followed by a sense of wonder that, by their interpretation, the IRA had still not committed to handing over its weapons.

"We've already given them too much" said Sheila Rea, 68, whose father, Hugh Bruce, was killed by an IRA bomb in 1972. She and her husband, Wilfred Rea, 74, were sitting in the sunshine underneath Gillespie's statue and they were in no mood for compromise.

"They've got their prisoners out and now they are going to get their seats as well," said Mrs Rea. "It's madness. My father was just a commissionaire outside a furniture shop - he was 68 years old - when they blew him up. We still don't know who did it. Now they've let lots of trained killers out of prison and they still have their weapons to do it all again. I can't agree to that."

Mr and Mrs Rea are the sort of people David Trimble must carry with him if the latest deal is to succeed, but there is evidence that they may be prepared to leave him behind. "This is just another promise - seats first, guns later," said Mr Rea. "This will split the entire Unionist Party. I think people will feel betrayed by Trimble."

As the afternoon wore on others came and sat in the shadow of Gillespie, a veteran of campaigns in Jarva, Palimbanc and Vellore, and were equally concerned. Sam McIlwrath, 57, who served 25 years in the British Army, was among the more pragmatic. "I am a strong Trimble supporter but I thought we were duped over the prisoner releases - I thought they would run concurrently with decommissioning, but they haven't," he said. "We in our community have gone far enough but it would be a shame to stop now. I am pleased it's moving forward but the other side needs to offer something as well. For the sake of our children they have to give up their arms."

Others were less happy. Corana Clarke, 35, a carer, said simply: "They still haven't given up their weapons? Why the hell are we talking to them?"

Across town, under the shadow of the high-rise blocks of New Lodge in republican north Belfast, there was more of a mood of reconciliation. Here, the idea of giving up arms would have been anathema a year ago, but now there was an air of resignation.

"I am not surprised the IRA don't want to give up their weapons over Easter, with the marching season coming up," said Noel Morrow, 53. "But the Unionists have been complaining about nothing - the weapons have been silenced for over a year. A lot of what trouble there has been has been caused by them."

Sam McKinney felt the Unionists' demands for decommissioning had been over-egged. "That was never a pre-condition - they just said it was," he said. "People here just want it all done now but Trimble has a lot of folk to move along with him and I am not sure he can do it."

As they walked home in the dying sunshine both men said the community was now just hungry for peace. But they equally thought an observer might easily return to Northern Ireland in 30 years and hear the same arguments being aired by a different generation of people.