'Suddenly and sickeningly, dread prevails over hope'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ten days ago I discovered it was still possible to drive a car into the heart of Belfast, on a busy shopping Saturday, without having it checked. A row of empty vehicles sat parked in Castle Street, 10 yards from the very centre of the city.

It was a surprising sight, given that no IRA ceasefire is in effect and that IRA units have clearly been intent on causing serious destruction in England. Yet the apparent laxity in security caused no outrage or outcry in Belfast, for in a way it reflected the prevailing mood.

That mood has been one of dread tempered by hope. People were saying that perhaps the IRA had voluntarily drawn a demarcation line down the middle of the Irish Sea; perhaps they intended to confine their bombings to England; perhaps Northern Ireland would escape.

It almost looked as though the security forces were reflecting something of this psychological mindset, by refraining from an oppressive clampdown which might in some way goad republicans back to the use of the bomb.

The mindset of fearing the worst while hoping for the best probably facilitated those who attacked army headquarters yesterday. The absence of routine checkpoints, parking restrictions and other security measures has undoubtedly made it easier for everyone to move around Northern Ireland.

And now, suddenly and sickeningly, the dread is prevailing over the hope. The hopes which almost everyone shared at the peak of the peace process, when both the IRA and loyalists were on ceasefire, now seem from another age, the product of a moment that has passed, of a window of opportunity now closed.

Instead there is the nightmare vision: that the tape is being re-wound, that the idea of peace, dialogue and negotiation has been tried and abandoned, that some republicans at least are intent on recreating the worst of the bad old days.

Certainly it could hardly have been more provocative. Sinn Fein has been excluded from talks because of the lack of an IRA ceasefire, and attacks such as yesterday's help ensure that the door to them will be more firmly barred than ever.

Then there are the loyalists. At the precise moment of the explosions Ulster Volunteer Force prisoners in the Maze jail, just outside Lisburn, were actually sitting in discussion with loyalist leaders from the outside. They were arguing about whether the loyalist ceasefire should be maintained when the explosions took place, sending a pall of black smoke in the air.

All over Northern Ireland last night people tuned in to their televisions and radios, anxious to find out whether it was an IRA attack; whether it might conceivably be the work of some fringe organisation; whether it was the prelude to another sustained IRA campaign. The question was whether they should abandon the last vestiges of hope and resign themselves to the bitter prospect of a resumption of the bitter, fruitless, endless struggle, the struggle that no one ever wins.