Catholics sense the chance to win the peace: David McKittrick has reported from Northern Ireland for 23 of the 25 years since British troops went into Londonderry. Here he looks back and assesses prospects for peace

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The Independent Online
TWENTY-FIVE years ago tomorrow since British troops were deployed, and more than 3,500 funerals later, what remains uppermost in the memory is not the dead but the bereaved. The quiet but inconsolable grief of the widows; the bitter, hatred-soaked stare of a brother whose sister was gunned down; the 10-year-old girl who asked her mother for a kitchen knife 'because I want to put it in my heart and go and see Daddy in heaven'.

The political profit and loss accounts can be drawn up, with conclusions drawn on how the Catholics have fared, how Protestant fortunes stand, what the British government has achieved. But the essence of the Troubles lies in those little homes which now lack a father or a son; where even if peace comes it will bring no real respite from sorrow.

Six years ago, at the time of another anniversary, the Independent concluded: 'There is no great groundswell of opinion in favour of accommodation in either community; no perceptible desire for compromise. The maiming and killing will continue. Peace is not in prospect.'

That bleak assessment proved unhappily accurate. This time, however, there are realistic grounds for hoping that the beginning of the end may be in sight, and that a continuation of the conflict cannot be so confidently and coldly predicted. Today the republican movement may be moving, however slowly and fearfully, away from IRA violence and towards political activity.

If that happens, loyalist paramilitaries might follow suit. This time peace could be in prospect. This is not a confident prediction, for much could go wrong. If it happens, it will not be a quick clean ending: it is more likely to be a messy business, with many dying kicks and old scores being settled. It could take years; but there is in the air a sense that the conflict has entered a new phase, which is possibly the final phase.

Yet, as six years ago, there is still an absence of a great groundswell for accommodation between the two communities. The IRA, if and when it lays down its arms, will be doing so because it believes it is moving towards new understandings with the rest of Irish nationalism, and with the British government. It is not about to stop because it thinks it is about to find new common ground with Unionists. Far from it, in fact: one of its persistent demands now is for Britain to 'break the Unionist veto', which is to say, to reduce Protestant power and influence. The onset of peace would be a spectacular step forward, but it would still leave a land disfigured by deep and bitter divisions.

Some of the scars will never heal. Peace would not be the end of the matter, but rather the first real step in a long and painful re-building process. As the accompanying interviews illustrate, the Catholic community is in the better shape to meet such a future.

Both its militant component and its much larger non-violent section display a confidence unimaginable 25 years ago. It is growing in numbers and climbing the social and economic ladders. It has re-defined and re-interpreted its beliefs and its goals, junked much redundant ideological baggage, and modernised itself in a new flexible European pragmatism.

Its people are already running large sections of the Northern Ireland public sector. It has powerful friends in Washington, Boston and Brussels. The future seems to hold either a united Ireland or a fairer Northern Ireland: either way it wins.

Unionism, by contrast, faces a fearful future. The two governments are looking ahead and so are the Catholics, even the IRA: but the Ulster Protestant has not moved with the times. The 25 years began with a historic defeat for Unionism, which found itself unable to justify, defend or even acknowledge its discriminatory system. It has never really recovered from that, playing a defensive game which has won it few outside friends over the years. Its lack of influence has to some extent been masked by the violence of the IRA, which brought as its incidental corollary a certain sympathy for its Protestant victims.

But for Protestants now, the closing of the IRA campaign would be a distinctly dubious blessing. The end of the killings would of course be welcome, but cessation would bring with it the prospects of far-reaching negotiations and debate on how everyone's interests could be accommodated in a new political deal.

The problem for Unionists is that their basic tenet - the assertion that Ulster is British and nothing else - is incapable of being reconciled with any settlement acceptable to the nationalists, who would be at future conference tables. Thus an IRA cessation could spell increased political trouble for the Protestants as, in the new situation, many will argue that republican aspirations have to be given due account.

It has been a terrible 25 years, with all those people being despatched to premature graves. With luck, we may be at a juncture where the conflicting currents can, finally, be drawn together; when belief in politics overcomes belief in the gun; when assassins no longer sledgehammer down doors and shoot people in their beds.

A great many people have learned lessons during the last quarter of a century, often the hard way. Hopefully, if the Troubles do end, the most lasting lesson is that Northern Ireland has more than its fair share of widows and orphans, and needs no more of them.

A PROTESTANT VIEW

'We are simply holding the line'

RAY FERGUSON is a Co Fermanagh solicitor whose family has been in unionist politics for generations. He has been an Ulster Unionist councillor for 17 years.

He said: 'The story of the last 25 years is the story of the loss of unionist or Protestant hegemony. The Protestant community is still numerically stronger than the Catholics, still economically and commercially stronger, but the confidence isn't there. Young Protestants have no interest in politics . . . they don't have any positive ideas, they don't see anything in it for them.

'You just couldn't sell something like powersharing in places like the big polarised housing estates where all the old myths obtain. The communities are definitely a lot more separate and polarised . . . and I don't know whether you'll ever break that down. But some things have changed. The old fear of the Catholic church just doesn't exist in the same way.

'Attitudes in the Republic of Ireland have changed as well. Twenty-five years ago they were wholeheartedly in support of the Irish nationalist ideal of Irish unity, but that has been very seriously challenged by a number of their leading thinkers. Now they are unsure whether it's a good thing. But Protestants define their political existence in terms of the struggle inside Northern Ireland and in relation to the Republic. (They) would see an all-Ireland as their ultimate defeat.

'The Catholic middle classes have got the sense that they have achieved and made progress. Whether they are are determined to progress along a traditional nationalist road to a united Ireland is another question.

'They have progressed whereas the Protestants have gone back. What Gerry Adams and the IRA want is some form of victory, but they probably realise that a total victory is just not possible . . . But they've struggled for 25 years, and made sacrifices, so they have a deliverance to make to justify all they've gone through. The rest of the Catholic community is basically saying they don't want to see Adams and the Provos humiliated, they just want them to stop.

'They're backing John Hume's efforts to put them out of business peacefully. But on the Protestant side there's a lot of indignation because they think Hume is boosting the republicans when they seemed to be faltering. Protestants still very much regard themselves as being British. But, as they perceive it, Britain would come to almost any political deal that it could, with honour, to relieve itself of the burden of Northern Ireland.

'So Protestants don't trust Britain, because they know the other partner in this union isn't as wholeheartedly committed to it as they are. The Protestant community are determined to hold their own as long as they can. They know they're simply holding the line, but they're certainly determined not to be in any way subjugated. Twenty-five years on Protestants are still at a loss about what to aim for.'

A CATHOLIC VIEW

'We're beginning to find our voice'

MARY McALEESE'S family had to leave their north Belfast home at the beginning of the Troubles after loyalists machine-gunned the house. Today she is a law professor and pro-vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast.

'The Catholic population has undergone an almost phenomenal change in terms of its sense of confidence, its willingness to articulate its nationalism. For years, largely because of the IRA's campaign of violence, people did not feel comfortable about openly espousing nationalism when others were killing and bombing. I think we have begun to successfully fight off that label, and what has probably created the space has been the prospect of ceasefire and the prospect of Sinn Fein coming on board.

'So the Catholic population are beginning to find their voice anew, they are coming out from behind the silence. My feeling has always been that Catholics were regarded as subversive - fundamentally not to be trusted. Now there are fair employment laws and the Irish government has access through the Anglo-Irish agreement and so on: there are structures in place which are beginning to allow Catholics to believe that there is the possibility of being regarded as equals.

'But we do not have an equal and fair society yet. My ambition would still be for a united Ireland but I don't know how realistic an ambition that is.

'Nationalism has been through a lot of debate and analysis, but I think the Protestant community still has a way to go in terms of analysing what's happening to them. I'm not suggesting that Unionism accept full responsibility for everything, but I'm saying it should accept a lot of responsibility for the events that led this community into chaos.

'Yet I still don't hear that voice that says: 'Look, we made mistakes, we are desperately sorry and we are trying very hard to find a way of redressing those mistakes and finding a way for us all to move forward in the future.' I see them as a people who head up so many cul-de-sacs and yet never face the fact that the union with Britain could be removed tomorrow morning, because essentially it is a gift. It is within the gift of Westminster to maintain the union, or to end it.

'British governments have often been negligent and they have acted stupidly at times. I really still don't know what the British government's long-term intention here is, apart from saying they'll stay if they're wanted and they'll probably go if they're not wanted. It would be important for the British government to indicate clearly where it sees itself in relation to Ireland 10, 15, 25 years from now. The Downing Street declaration has offered the IRA an opportunity to do what the rest of us feel is the right thing to do, which is to learn to listen to one another without the threat of guns.

'I hope what is going on is a weaning process which will produce people who have genuinely forsworn violence. I have a feeling that over the last 18 months the problem is beginning to be analysed in the correct way, with a real prospect of a meaningful peace. We're not there yet; but I think we may be on the doorstep.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- ULSTER'S EBB AND FLOW OF VIOLENCE SINCE 1969 ----------------------------------------------------------------- August 1969: British troops sent in after widespread rioting and disorder in Belfast and Londonderry - the culmination of worsening street disturbances involving Paisleyite protesters and Catholic civil rights campaigners. 1970-71: Emergence of Provisional IRA as significant force. 1972: Troops shoot dead 13 Catholics on 'Bloody Sunday'; Protestant-dominated Stormont parliament abolished; loyalist killer gangs emerge. Violence reaches peak, with almost 500 deaths. 1973 on: Violence continues as series of attempted political initiatives fail, including collapse in 1974 of loyalist-nationalist power-sharing executive. Late 1970s: Violence reduced from average of 275 deaths a year to 85. 1981: Maze hunger strikes - during which 10 IRA and INLA members die - revives republican movement. 1985: British and Irish governments sign Anglo-Irish agreement - outraging Unionists and signalling period of closer relations between London and Dublin. Late 1980s: IRA, re-armed by Libya, begins long-running campaign in Britain. Loyalist violence also escalates. 1990s: Government has secret talks with IRA. Republican rhetoric of peace brings Downing Street declaration. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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