Thousands call for peace in Ulster: Huge rallies across the province as a minute's silence is observed for the dead

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TENS of thousands of people attended peace rallies across Northern Ireland yesterday, observing a minute's silence for the dead and hearing heartfelt calls for an end to violence.

It was an impressive turnout, surpassing the usual attendance at such gatherings and helping to maintain a momentum which has increased steadily in recent weeks.

In all, 16 lunchtime rallies were held across the province, most of them organised by the trade union movement. Speakers included trade unionists, clergymen and business leaders. In many towns, shops closed and work in other places of employment stopped.

The biggest rally, outside Belfast city hall, was attended by an estimated 30,000 people - the largest demonstration in Northern Ireland since the rally against the Anglo-Irish agreement eight years ago.

In a gesture of solidarity the Irish parliament also observed a minute's silence. Meanwhile, tens of thousands joined in a telephone 'poll for peace' organised by Belfast newspapers, which attracted calls at the rate of one per second.

A number of senior academics and businessmen came together to call for action towards peace and a political settlement. They included the local Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the heads of both Northern Ireland's universities and key figures in business and commerce.

They said in a statement: 'We can stay manacled to the past and pay the price in terms of steady deterioration and lost opportunity. Or we can break free, draw strength from our diversity and, in partnership, forge a better future.

'Stability and peace would lead to investment conditions second to none in the world for our existing businesses and for new inward investment which together would most certainly produce the opportunity for the creation of many jobs. The situation brooks no delay. All those on the island who can help to shape events have a duty to act now.'

Terry Carlin, a senior trade unionist who helped organise the rallies, said there was a large groundswell for renewed efforts for reconciliation.

Roy Bailie, the local CBI chairman, said: 'We hope that the day of community action will encourage the politicians to find ways of securing a political and peaceful settlement so that Northern Ireland can start to look forward to a period of economic prosperity in the international arena.'