Apathy greets veteran peace campaigner: Alex Renton detects little optimism or enthusiasm for action in Antrim

'MY FIRST encounter, when I realised what was what, was in 1978: a man hung on some railings with a knife stuck through him. He was still alive, then. But they'd cut him all to bits, cut his private parts off. And he was just hanging there. That was done by one section of the community. But the other section of the community had done just the same - cut a chap to pieces with a knife, and left him stuck behind the wire grill in a shop doorway.'

While peace is on everybody's lips this week, it has been Bill Copley's business since he helped found the Peace Committee from church and trade union movements in 1976.

The committee's 1,200 members were working as hard as ever this week. Yesterday Mr Copley was recruiting in a room above an Antrim sports centre, under a poster of Munch's The Scream. Before him were just eight of the town's 30,000 people - attracted by notices in the newspapers proposing the formation of the county's first Peace Committee.

It was not, everyone admitted, a good turnout. The men and women blamed the pressure of Christmas shopping and the time of day. Mr Copley explained that in Belfast people did not like going to meetings at night. It was not safe. That was not, he was told, a problem in Antrim, a largely Protestant town 15 miles north of Belfast, where sectarian violence was, until recently, all but unknown.

Mr Copley gave a potted history of his organisation, and told his listeners: 'In the last couple of days we've had 16 cases of people who have been threatened or given notices to get out of Belfast.'

The committee is told about such cases by the police or local churches, and provides advice and help to the people concerned, sometimes finding them new homes through church organisations in Wales.

He told how the committee helped shopkeepers suffering intimidation, about its work in schools and elsewhere. Then he asked for volunteers to set up an Antrim committee. There was a long silence.

His small audience complained of the apathy in Antrim, despite a recent rise in paramilitary intimidation.

Mr Copley warned people not to be carried away by this week's developments. 'The change is coming, but I don't know that our children will see it.' One man -told him not to sound such an 'incredibly negative note'.

After the meeting closed - with a decision to have another go in mid-January - only one man expressed any confidence that the process started by Albert Reynolds and John Major would come to blossom.

'I can't see any end, any way out of it,' another elderly woman said, shaking her head. Elaine Knox, who went to the meeting on behalf of her Methodist church, was not much more optimistic. 'I like to think there will be peace, because everyone wants it - but I don't think it will happen, quite honestly.'

The only young person at the meeting was Rodney Cameron, 29, who was training to be a Presbyterian minister. He was disturbed that the sectarian nightmares had arrived in the mixed estate in Antrim where he lived. 'Members of the security forces are being intimidated - phone calls, letters, anonymous people asking how are your children getting on at school?'

Bill Copley said later that he did not see the new peace initiative bringing the day when his organisation would be redundant any closer. Rather the opposite.

'I think there will be a terrible lot more shot dead before this gets anywhere. The Protestants feel they have been sold down the river, and Sinn Fein reckons that if it's got this much, it will get more. I think there will be trouble before Christmas.'

(Photograph omitted)