Peace gains five yards in bandit country

Decca Aitkenhead on a year's truce in Crossmaglen; `But this peace won't last. There's too many people with nothing to do now, you know'
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The Independent Online
FOR Crossmaglen Rangers FC, a year's truce in Ulster means a brightly painted new social club. It also means a huge Army fort still crouched like a metal monster where the turnstiles ought to be.

If the fruits of the ceasefire are apparent in myriad ways in this infamous border town, so too are the disappointments.

The mortar attacks have ceased, but helicopters still roar overhead. RUC patrols are off the streets, but soldiers remain in the fields. The border roads are all open, but still surveyed by watchtowers.

People can stay out late and travel without fear of being stopped - even plan for the future. But as Thursday's ceasefire anniversary approaches, for this fiercely Republican population the reality of "peace" looks increasingly inadequate - and precarious. It is too little, they say, and, perhaps, too late. That a year should have passed already is a source less of celebration than dismay.

The balance sheet of peace reads in sharp relief in one small scrag of South Armagh's "bandit country", the Crossmaglen Rangers ground. The old bomb-damaged club premises have been replaced, match attendances are up and the Saturday night Country and Western dance pulls a full house.

But less than five yards of the strip of land requisitioned by the RUC in 1971 has been returned to the club since the IRA declared its ceasefire. One of Ulster's most despised and best fortified RUC/Army bases sits almost on the touchline.

The base dominates Crossmaglen. Its watchtowers bear down on the square, cameras recording every movement. Helicopters ferry in suppliesthroughout the day. But the two teenage girls strolling beneath are full of hope. "Sure, it's changed an awful lot," one said. "Before, we had to be in by eight o'clock, now it's 11 or 12." The other girl agrees. "Before, we couldn't even have sat here like this." Both believe it really might all be over. "Oh aye," they laugh, pointing at the base. "We've got plans for that place. I reckon a leisure complex."

They give their names cheerfully. But later, one runs up and begs me not to use them. "We've been told we'd get into trouble."

Across the square in Mrs MacNamee's bakery, business over the past year has picked up. "We're getting customers in from the other side [the South] now. Before, you would never get that," she says.

A young BT engineer, Barry, is in Mrs MacNamee's having tea. "Before, in a year you could maybe lose two working weeks, just being stopped by the security forces. You never get stopped now, it's all more civilised. I've got Protestant friends in Newry who are only willing to come here now, for the first time. And it's nice to be able to sit down and watch TV and see something nice - not someone else dying before their time.

"Mind you, I'm looking to buy a house at the moment and they've gone up at least pounds 5,000. But peace won't last. There's too many people with nothing to do now. I'll say no more."

The roads winding out of town are lined with tricolours, the letters IRA, and signs demanding the release of "PoWs". There are no checkpoints now; the only roadblock to be encountered is a herd of leisurely Friesians.

Local Sinn Fein activists swear they are still shadowed by soldiers, but there is no obvious sign of this. However, watchtowers stationed on every hill continue to monitor the rolling countryside.

A tourism industry has been tentatively taking root in the past year, and Chris McGrath, manager of a newly-opened heritage centre, wants the towers gone: "They are the first image visitors see, and we have to change that." But Frank Murphy, manager of the Slieve Gullion Forest Park tourist centre, admits that the area's infamy may be part of its attraction: "We have to cash in on our curiosity value." Both are enjoying the support of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and visitors from the rest of Ulster, the South, England and the Continent have arrived in numbers for the first time.

"The potential for tourism now is huge," says Chris McGrath. There is talk of a hotel being built in Crossmaglen; one is nearing completion in nearby Newry. Its predecessor was bombed. "The whole thing's so finely balanced. It could all go wrong tomorrow. When they released [Private Lee] Clegg last month there was rioting in Newry, and for a week we died. You can hardly blame tourists for staying away when that happens, can you?"

Mr McGrath shrugs. Private Clegg's release is raised in despair by everyone you speak to in Crossmaglen. Frank and Sean, young builders working on a house in the square, shake their heads in disbelief. "The people here who've given up the struggle need to see something in return. They don't want to see that. If they saw some of their mates coming out of jail they would maybe start to feel it was worth it," argues Frank.

As with so many Crossmaglen people, neither will give his full name. They are acutely conscious of their reputation, acquired simply from living in the town.

"When people hear you are from here they think you are a baddie," said Frank. "We were afraid to go to Belfast to work, before - afraid of the police setting us up because they had found out where we were from."

Late at night, in a pub in Newry, another young man is anxious to remain anonymous. "I was a member of the IRA in the 1980s. My best friend got killed. This country is going to have to change. People are going to have to live together, but first the British Government is going to have to pull its finger out."

He rolls up his sleeve furtively, to reveal a tricolour tattoo on his forearm. "Now I'm getting that removed," he goes on. "Newry is blooming since the ceasefire. Business is taking off. I'm getting that taken off because we have to get on with it, and I'm embarrassed to offend the Protestant people I work with."

Hopes for peace remain high. Expectations are low. The news on Friday that paramilitary prisoners would receive 50 per cent remission did little in Crossmaglen to lift confidence in the peace process.

Driving out of town, you pass a hand-made road sign - a red triangle, containing the outline of a terrorist, with the words: "Sniper At Work". An amendment has been added: "On Hold".

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