The scars of war slow path to reconciliation

A year of peace: In the first of a series on the ceasefire in Northern Ireland, David McKittrick examines the tensions that remain
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The Independent Online
This weekend's riots in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, illustrate that Northern Ireland has peace, but not quiet. There are no bombs but there is not yet reconciliation. It is many months away from full-scale political talks and years away from agreement.

The bombs have stopped but the punishment beatings and the intimidation continue. Protestant and Catholic extremists throw crude petrol bombs at each other's homes and places of worship. Peace walls still scar the face of Belfast.

Hopes for a dynamic, fast-moving peace process have faded as politicians bicker, and as the Government and the republicans remain locked in the decommissioning impasse. Loyalist politicians repeatedly forecast a resumption of IRA violence. The IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA are still around. There has been little if any build-up of trust. There are no guarantees that the peace will last.

And yet for every disheartening thought that the head produces, the heart is reassured by many hopeful signs. People in the streets keep a wary ear on the warnings of impending doom, but there is no doubt that most believe the troubles are probably over for good.

A number of things must happen if the peace is to be consolidated and guaranteed. There will have to be a political settlement to which all sections can subscribe, for the troubles have been an object lesson in what happens when part of the community is excluded from political life.

Reaching a settlement will mean Sinn Fein and the Unionists thrashing out an accommodation: Martin McGuinness sitting down with Ken Maginnis, Mitchel McLaughlin across the table from David Trimble; Gerry Adams doing business with Peter Robinson.

These bitter opponents will have to work through issues such as Northern Ireland's place in the union, its relationship with the Republic, and how it is to be policed. Sketching out the issues like this shows how mountainous are the obstacles ahead, for at the moment such a scenario remains in the realms of the unthinkable.

But anyone who forecast a year ago that the IRA and later the loyalists would declare a complete cessation of violence, and that the ceasefires would be maintained with such discipline, would have been dismissed as the giddiest of optimists.

Yet within 12 months, Gerry Adams, as leader of a republican movement which has ceased using violence, has shaken hands with Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, British ministers and almost every major political figure in the Irish Republic.

Former loyalist paramilitaries have surprised many with the enthusiasm of their new commitment to politics rather than terrorism. No guns have been handed over, yet both republicans and loyalists have committed themselves to the principle of decommissioning in the context of an overall settlement.

Although mainstream Unionist politicians, in particular the Rev Ian Paisley, continue to shy away from talks, in the undergrowth many things are stirring.

The troubles have produced a large number of people who eschewed politics but became highly active in the community and voluntary sectors, helping to establish a new culture of conferencing, networking and debate.

Scarcely a week passes without a conference or seminar on politics, policing or the economy. All the talking has produced few clear answers on the way ahead, but the idea of dialogue has taken root in an encouraging new way. It has not, however, displaced confrontation, and the pace of the peace process has been impeded by the related questions of all-party talks and the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry.

These issues have created a stark fault-line within the process. On one side are the government and Unionist politicians, saying guns must be handed in before round-table talks can start. On the other side, arguing that this is unrealistic, are Sinn Fein and most nationalist politicians. Along with them, most unusually, are the loyalist paramilitary groups who on this issue take a similar line to Sinn Fein.

The arms question has not totally stopped progress, but it has developed into a central defining issue, slowing everything down, preventing the development of momentum and of mutual confidence among the participants, and causing considerable strains within the republican movement.

These strains appear to represent the greatest potential threat to the process. On the one hand, the security force assessment is that republican leaders remain committed to the peace process. Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of the RUC, said recently: "I believe from all the intelligence available to me that the leadership of the Provisionals wants the peace to continue."

He added, however, that there were "significant pockets of resistance" to the peace. The signs are, therefore, that Gerry Adams is engaged in holding off the hard men as he presses the Government to move towards talks without de-commissioning.

The IRA statement which called off their campaign declared that "a solution will only be found as a result of inclusive negotiations". Twelve months later, any such negotiations still seem a long way off, leading Mr Adams to say this has created a dangerous political vacuum.

Such pressures will continue and probably intensify unless some compromise formula can be found on the arms issue, as Mr Adams seeks to convince sceptics in the IRA that politics is preferable to terrorism. With factors such as these at work, the peace process can never be regarded as completely safe.

A year ago, the IRA's announcement of a complete cessation of violence was not greeted with celebrations in the streets: it was accompanied by too many unanswered questions, and many uncertainties remain. Problems lie ahead as far as the eye can see.

But there is every reason to believe that with luck, ingenuity and careful judgment, the killings will not start again.

Section Two: Belfast boy returns

Tomorrow: changing life