One year on: half a peace is better than none

Ulster's Good Friday euphoria may have faded, but violence is still at its lowest level for 30 years, writes Steve Crawshaw
Click to follow
The Independent Online
YOU COME upon it suddenly - an incongruous sight that is reminiscent of the street-slicing Berlin Wall at its most surreal. Nestling in the tidy suburbs of north Belfast, where the urban landscape begins to give way to lush countryside, Serpentine Road seems tranquil. This is an estate of semi-detached houses, indistinguishable from thousands of similar estates all across Britain. Neatly mown lawns, cheerful-yellow forsythia in the front garden, clipped privet hedges.

The first hint of something odd as the road winds its way down the hill is a brand-new traffic sign tied to a lamp post, which warns that the next side-street is No Entry. Around the next corner, you see why. A huge olive-painted metal wall blocks the road, separating the houses on Serpentine Road (mostly occupied by Catholics), from the Protestant houses on the other side. On the Protestant side, Union Jacks hang from the lamp posts, Ulster Freedom Fighters graffiti decorate the walls, and the kerbs are (as on so many streets and estates across Northern Ireland) painted with red, white and blue stripes. The little doorway in this Belfast Wall is padlocked every evening at 9pm.

There are other "peace walls" in Belfast, formalising the no-go areas between Catholic and Protestant territory. The Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill roads have been separated by high fences and walls for many years. But the Serpentine Wall is depressingly different. This one is brand-new - erected after the Good Friday agreement allegedly brought peace to Northern Ireland last year. It is a reminder of just how many reasons for pessimism the province still holds.

In one respect, the pattern seems brutally simple. A year ago, peace in Northern Ireland was on its way. Gerry Adams and David Trimble, the Sinn Fein and Unionist leaders whose names had become synonymous with intransigence, signed up for an historic deal that spelt peace in our time. Politicians and headline-writers spoke of "miracles".

This week's Good Friday anniversary marks the deadline for implementing last year's agreement, and for the creation of the new power-sharing executive which will make possible a devolution of power. But the arguments are increasingly bitter, and pessimism runs deep. Loyalists and nationalists alike say they have already compromised too far, and that it is up to the other side to make the next move. Adams and Trimble agreed to meet. Afterwards, each accused the other of refusing to compromise.

Tony Blair is flying to Belfast tomorrow for talks with the key players - Adams, Trimble and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern - in an attempt to break the logjam.

As prisoners continue to be released - the Maze, which used to hold 500, is now half-empty - arguments continue about what should happen to the mostly unrepentant terrorists. Decommissioning of weapons, a thorny issue from the start, has got thornier still. Nationalists argue that giving up weapons is a concession too far, until the agreement is nailed down. Loyalists are not the only ones who feel uneasy at this logic. John Hume, the SDLP leader who has done so much to achieve the impossible, last week pleaded for a symbolic gesture. If "a load of Semtex was left on a hillside somewhere", he said, it would be "very helpful".

Public gestures of conciliation are not the IRA's style. Instead, the question is whether there will be - in a phrase that has entered Ulster's political lexicon - the "smell of cooking fudge" this week. For the cynics, fudge means sell-out; for the optimists, it provides a way of getting through to the next stage of the fragile peace.

For this is a kind of peace, even if it does not look like it. There has been a spate of violence in recent weeks: the savage murder of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson, blown up by a car bomb as she left her home in Lurgan, Co Armagh; last Tuesday, a booby-trap explosion injured a Catholic in a Co Down scrapyard. In the past six months, however, there have been only half a dozen deaths - fewer than at any time for the past 30 years.

The collective memory of the days leading up to the Easter agreement is of a now-vanished euphoria. On radio, on television, and at Stormont, there was, indeed, euphoria. Elsewhere, however, there was not. On the streets, few believed an agreement would be reached; others argued that any that was, was doomed to failure.

The subsequent referendum on the agreement was close-run until the last moment, when a remarkable 71 per cent voted in favour. Protestants especially felt wary of a sell-out. Now, despite all the loyalists' anger over what they perceive as Sinn Fein's obduracy on decommissioning, there is a widespread loyalty to the idea that a peace agreement is desirable. The most frequently heard criticisms are reserved not for the peace agreement itself, but for those - nationalists or loyalists, depending on who you are talking to - who are perceived as sabotaging it.

In the months after the vote for last year's agreement, IRA dissidents killed 29 people in a shopping street in Omagh. Protestant arsonists murdered three children in their homes. But that deadly symmetry helped to seal the agreement, not destroy it. Today's continuing anger at those senseless murders leaves the men of violence isolated as never before.

Northern Ireland has long since become accustomed to routine violence. On the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, schoolchildren in their neat uniforms pass a burnt-out bus - after rioting triggered by the murder of Rosemary Nelson - with scarcely a second glance.

The Orangemen's marching season, which starts on Easter Monday, is likely to bring violent clashes at Drumcree and elsewhere. In the words of one uncompromising notice outside Drumcree church: "Ulster's getting worse every day. We're sickened by David Trimble, we're sickened by the IRA."

But there is a longing for the half-peace of the past year. In the words of one inhabitant of the Garvaghy Road: "People can't go back to how it was. We just can't." "Hope" is a word that is often heard in Northern Ireland these days - and no longer just with withering sarcasm. "I'm not what you would call an optimist," says an unemployed Belfast man, "but I have a prayer. There's not a funeral every day. Before, you switched on the TV and you were watching funerals. That's a change."

Twenty-four-year-old Karen Docherty lives with her Catholic husband on one side of the Serpentine wall; her mother lives a few yards away, on the Protestant side. At night, they are locked apart. "You get used to it," she says flatly. Then, pointing to her 18-month-old daughter Natalie, she adds: "You have to hope for the best. I'm hoping that she will grow up in a different world."