The Ulster Declaration: Initiative unites the sceptics on both sides of divide: West Belfast

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The Independent Online
THE BERLIN Arms and the Sports Tavern are just a half- brick's throw apart, as they say around here. In all other respects there's a world between them. But yesterday, John Major and Albert Reynolds achieved a miracle and united the bars of Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls - in disappointment and scepticism of their peace initiative.

One lunchtime drinker summed up the feeling on both sides of west Belfast: this deal was 'not the Christmas present I wanted'. This unity of opinion only went so far. Derek, a 30- year-old mechanic drinking in the Berlin Arms, said the initiative meant 'the IRA's violence has paid off. You can't have peace talks without violence - and now the IRA have won'.

His friend, a 49-year-old window fitter, agreed: 'Sinn Fein means 'We Alone' - that's what they want. There's no room in their Ireland for anyone else.'

On the television screen above them, the Rev Ian Paisley was seeing off an interviewer. 'The only future is an independent Ulster,' the window fitter said, smiling up at the Democratic Unionist leader. 'We get the hints, we can see the British don't want us . . . People will see this as us being sold down the river. And they will act.'

Derek says he doesn't have a problem with Catholics - he's the only Protestant member of his blues band, and they play 'wherever they'll pay]'. But he sees no hope. 'I'd love peace - but it's not acceptable at this price . . . there are so many wounds, the feelings are too deep. It'll be Bosnia.'

At another table sit Frances, 53, and Blanche, 66, both born and bred in the Shankill. Frances's nephew, an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was killed by the IRA two years ago. 'You're going to see a civil war here. There'll be murder,' she said. She feels betrayed. 'We fought to be British. We're more British than they are over there, and we want to stay British.'

Her solution is for 'us all to be the way we were. We lived together before the Troubles'. Blanche, who used to work on the Falls Road as a spinner, repeated the Shankill Road mantra: 'We want peace - but not at any price. Not at this price.'

At the Sports Tavern on the Falls Road, a block from Sinn Fein headquarters, the mood is different. Catholic drinkers, many of them workers at the Royal hospitals, reckon they've seen it all before. 'Nothing new, and nothing'll happen,' one said.

'The only way there will be peace in Northern Ireland is when the Brits get out,' the barman said. 'Do you know what this peace deal means?' asked one woman. 'It means a Catholic will be shot dead tonight.'

Still, there is unanimity that the nationalists have nothing to lose by giving John Major's offer a chance - 'In the end it's like with Yasser Arafat. You have to talk to them. Not that I see any good coming of it.'

Some agreed with the 24-year-old barman that there is no guarantee that a ceasefire will hold. Everyone fears a possible backlash. 'If the Orangemen start shooting people, the IRA won't be able to hold back forever. We've been here before.'

The graffiti on the Falls Road pleads 'Support the Adams-Hume peace initiative]' Last night, some were willing to applaud a real step forward for peace. 'People are sick of it all, they just want peace,' said Mary Hanvey, of the Falls Neighbourhood Development Centre. 'And today I'm more hopeful than I ever was.'

Colleague, Peter McMahon, said: 'I've always been convinced I'd never, ever, see it in my lifetime. But now . . . there's hope.'