Colm Boyle recently took his nine-year-old son Paul to a park in Belfast to play. It was early on a winter evening, and Paul - who has Down syndrome - started to play on the swings. As children do, he made friends with some little girls who were there, and they started to play together. Colm sat on a bench near by.
The children moved a little farther away to the roundabout, and then even farther away, as children do. Colm watched as the girls started making calls on a mobile phone, and then he ran over to join them because he knew by his son's face that he was disturbed. "Bad men are going to kill you, Daddy; bad men are going to kill you," Paul was saying, over and over. "No, no one's going to hurt me," Colm reassured him. No one did hurt him - but only because a woman he'd never met before probably saved his life. There were men and boys with baseball bats waiting at every park exit. The woman told Colm to remove his jumper - which had an Irish logo on it - and to link arms with her. "Pretend you're with me," she said. He got out of the play park with his son, unharmed.
The girls, it transpired, had called the men, telling them a Catholic was in their park; the men had called their boys, and they went out to get him. That is not what children are expected to do, especially in a country in the middle of a peace process.
Are the most important people in any foundation for lasting peace - the children - being forgotten? The cry that it will take a new generation who want peace to end the Troubles is so frequent that it has become something of a cliché for the people who live there. But it is true; and if there are still pre-teens who are watching out for people of a different religion coming into their area, then the current political stalemate is of even greater concern.
A vacuum is never a good thing in Northern Ireland. Henry Neeson is a community worker and peripatetic teacher, whose job takes him around both Protestant and Catholic schools. He is not sure that enough is being done. "At ground level, a lot of people feel that this is the transition period," he says. "This time is called 'post-conflict', but it's not post-conflict because the conflict is still there. It's actually a transition toward post-conflict. We've got a generation of young people who were reared on street-corner rioting: the problem is that there's been no redirection of that energy."
There are, of course, groups and agencies that get government funding to try to address this. But the peace process has had some strange results. "When the Troubles were at their height," Neeson says, "there was an endless flow of money coming into these communities, but once the Troubles started to go into decline, there was a big reduction in the amount of money." He points out that much has been done in interface areas (places where people of both faiths live side by side) to curb fighting between teens, but success in reducing trouble often leads to a cut in funding. The effect is that fewer staff are employed and, as a consequence, there's more trouble on the streets again. Other factors include the lack of political conversation and debate at schools, and the fact that many adults are sick of the topic: in Neeson's words, they "prefer to talk about football".
The context of all this is the peace process being played out at Stormont. At the moment, it is literally "played out", because the Belfast Assembly has been suspended since October 2002 - the conflict resolution techniques that worked well enough outside parliament didn't quite translate inside. Northern Ireland has a history of political parties not talking to each other, and in the elections held in November, Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), headed by the Rev Ian Paisley, got most of the votes. They're at opposite ends of the spectrum, and Paisley won't speak to the opposition.
What does the political climate mean for the people who live there? Not much. "It's a stalemate," says Matt Hollander, who grew up in Belfast, but lived in London for a while before moving back to Northern Ireland in his mid-twenties, when things seemed to be picking up. "There was a real hope that things would be better, but it isn't anywhere, really." Hollander, who is from a Protestant background, thinks that middle-class Protestants are scared. "They voted for peace in 1997 without fully thinking through what that meant," he says. "Now they see that it could mean a united Ireland, and they're voting for safety."
On the other side of town, the people on the fiercely nationalist Falls Road hold a range of views. Niall Dempsey, a young man with two children, voted for Sinn Fein. Why? "The length of string on the pencil wasn't long enough to reach to the Unionists," he jokes. "Sinn Fein are the most relevant to our needs - but they're actually not much different from the DUP in their day-to-day politics, either: they're both the parties of the working class. It's just a pity they won't speak to each other."
He laughs. But behind the wry jokes that go with what is often seen as a political farce, the implications of the culture of silence are more profound. If adults aren't sure that they can institute change, or keep what change there is evolving, it will be difficult for them to pass anything on to their children, who will become the next generation of voters.
For people who are in their late twenties or early thirties, the political stalemate is disappointing. "I didn't vote this time," says Martin Liddle, who lives in the Falls Road. "Sinn Fein are sinister - they're more clued in, and are getting in through the communities. The bomb-makers are now leading youth groups." The argument against this, of course, is that the bomb-makers aren't making bombs any more. But if you have doubts about their motives, where else do you turn? "The SDLP [the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party] are completely out of touch," Liddle says, "and I'm not going to vote for the Unionists." Lack of a real choice, then, is disenfranchising. It is unfair to call this apathy - and worrying to call it realism.
But for those almost of voting age, the mood is either one of confusion or of frightening clarity. Claire McKillop, who is 17 and from a nationalist background, says she doesn't really understand it all. "I won't vote because I don't understand this situation," she says. "I keep away from it. We never really talk about it, which is sad."
At the other end of the spectrum, Liam McAughey, also 17, is adamant that he will vote, but he has no illusions about the situation he'll probably be voting in. "Everyone's happy that it's peaceful, obviously, but we're all just counting the days until it stops being peaceful. The IRA have been on ceasefire for six years, whereas the loyalist paramilitaries have been continuing: if they're not killing each other, they're killing Catholics," he says. "The IRA have been on cease-fire to give Sinn Fein a chance to sit down and talk: the DUP is making it impossible for them to talk, so you have to think of the IRA's only alternative. We're all just waiting for that to happen." He pauses. "It's good we've had the peace for the last six years, and it's good that we've been able to develop ourselves as a wider community, but it will only be another couple of years before we're running scared."
That opinion isn't confined to nationalists. Graham Little, a sports journalist for UTV (Ulster Television), has, at the age of 25, watched the conflict played out for most of his life. "I don't see politics going anywhere, and it's been like that for years," he says. "The peace process is fragile, but a fragile peace is better than what we had before. And I've no problem at all with political stalemate, as long as there's not the violence there was."
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 promised more than this, but Little is not alone in this view. He is more stoical than most, though. "I mean, I don't really care whether I'm ruled directly from Stormont or from Westminster. It makes very little difference to me either way. In day-to-day life it doesn't really matter who's making the laws - you have to obey them anyway. And, you know, they're not widely different whether they're made by somebody in Belfast or somebody in London."
Still, Little is able to appreciate the particular concerns about the current position. "There's definitely a shift from the more moderate parties out to the more extreme parties," he says. "You've got a majority of Protestants here voting for a party that won't speak to the party that the nationalists voted for. Great."
But it's not all negative. In his line of work, Little sees subtle changes that he believes are signs of better things to come. The local rugby union organisation, traditionally the domain of Protestants, now has a Catholic president. That may not seem significant, but it is if you know the history. "On the other side, Gaelic football realistically has a long way to go because of its history," Little says. "But I'm a Protestant, and I'm going to learn it this year. Maybe some people will say something, but I'm sure there won't be a problem."
Most interestingly, he says he's heard talk that the Maze prison, the sprawling buildings that once housed political prisoners but now lie abandoned, may become the site of a new national sports stadium. "The important thing about it is that if it happens, it will house all three national sports: Gaelic football, soccer and rugby. That's never been the case before. We've never had that sort of co-operation," Little says.
And maybe that, in a strange way, is a clue to what a better future could be: the sound of a crowd at a sports event drowning out the silence in Stormont.Reuse content