Unionists: we're caught in a trap: Protestant attitudes harden over 'peace package'

THE DOMINANT feature of Conway Square, hub of the staunchly Unionist town of Newtownards, is an eight-pointed, yellow-brick star. Inlaid in an ancient marketplace, this modern symbol is pointed with stainless steel tips, capable, it would seem, of propelling citizens' thoughts through bastions of history to a wider world beyond their troubled province.

The radial symbolism is pleasing at first. But after talking to the square's busy shoppers and tradesmen, one finds one's attention drawn, ominously, to what lies at the star's centre: a manhole.

Until this year, a quarter century of Northern Ireland terrorism brought little discomfort to the people of Newtownards. Then, on 5 July, they got their first taste: a huge IRA bomb shattered the town centre, demolishing several 19th-century buildings, damaging the 18th-century town hall on the north side of Conway Square, wrecking the library and a restaurant.

No one was killed, or even seriously injured, but for the 26,000 townsfolk, the bomb ended an illusion of security and concentrated their fearful minds on the future.

Last week, news of John Hume, leader of the (mainly Catholic) Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Gerry Adams, leader of (the pro-IRA) Sinn Fein, preparing a 'peace package' seemed to bring closer a united Ireland. How did the Protestants of Newtownards respond?

'Gerry Adams should be assassinated,' said a 31-year-old local government worker. He added in the next breath: 'There will never be an end to the Troubles - there's absolutely no hope; it will drag on and on.'

The mixture of defiance and defeatism, a comparatively recent phenomenon among Unionists, is fairly widespread in Newtownards, where Protestants outnumber Catholics by more than seven to one. In pubs such as the Loft Bar, its windows still boarded up, young men glared over the rim of their pints and, predictably, threatened 'a rogue police force to take all the baddies away'. But less impulsive Unionists also felt trapped. Cherishing their law-abiding image, they pointed to IRA 'progress' via violence. While they did not condone loyalist assassination of Catholics, they believed the security forces - particularly the Royal Ulster Constabulary - could buttress no longer what remains of stability. Few felt secure enough to be quoted by name.

The Ards peninsula has long been security-conscious; it still bristles with mottes and baileys, castles and tower houses. Today's insecurity is all the more palpable throughout its main town. Ronnie Ferguson, a local councillor, said: 'We have run the whole gamut of disaster, political and terrorist, yet we've always had good relations with the SDLP people. People on the (British) mainland believe Unionists are led by the likes of Ian Paisley, and that's an embarrassment to me. Most of my friends are Catholics.'

Mr Ferguson is a small, voluble man. Yet, compared with the lava of Paisleyism, he seems reasonable, prepared to accept political adjustments in which he has had a say.

'Unionism has developed an instinctive reflex for saying no,' he said. 'But I'm sure there can be agreement on how to govern ourselves in a devolved assembly. The trouble is we have lost so much already, and attitudes are hardening.'

This was echoed by almost all the Protestants questioned. 'People are saying, 'Why can't we adopt the same tactics as the IRA?' without thinking or caring about the awful consequences' (shop manageress). 'When the Government outlawed the (extreme loyalist) Ulster Defence Association, they should have expected its people would behave like outlaws' (bank employee). 'My son is 15. He hears the news minute-by-minute: the Protestants are being sold down the river and our politicians can do nothing about it. Imagine how he feels about it and what he wants to do about it. I have to stop him going up to Belfast' (unemployed fitter/welder).

Beyond Newtownards, hardly a day passes without news of loyalist killers on the rampage. 'It makes me very despondent,' Mr Ferguson said.

Even non-Unionist Protestants (so far an uncounted species) can point to what IRA violence has achieved for Northern Ireland's Catholic Nationalists. Dennis Kennedy, author of The Widening Gulf, a perceptive analysis of northern attitudes to southern Ireland, mentioned some of them: the abolition of Stormont, Ulster's government; the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the British Government permitted Dublin to have an advisory role in a territory over which it had a constitutional claim; statements by British Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland that they took a neutral stance between Unionist and Nationalist positions, and the espousal by the British Labour Party of Irish unity.

'So, whatever it may contain, the psychological impact of the Hume-Adams package on the Unionists is considerable,' said Dr Kennedy who has close connections across the Irish political spectrum, north and south. 'John Hume knows that if he produces a Provisional IRA ceasefire, it would be hard for the Dublin government to block his initiative. It would also be difficult for the British Government to appear to be saying 'no' to peace. That would leave the Unionists as dog-in-the-manger. Whatever emerges . . . Hume will be seen as the arbiter of peace and the Unionists as objectors.'

David Smith, a butcher whose property was wrecked in July's bomb, has anticipated a similar scenario for months. 'When I saw the damage to my shop, I was very calm. My wife gave me a strong cup of coffee and a large Bushmills. Later, I turned on the television and there was Mayhew talking about defeating terrorism. I went spare. He's done nothing.'

Chris McGimpsey, a Newtownards businessman, who is also a Belfast city councillor, believes that if an Anglo-Irish authority were imposed on Northern Ireland, 'there would be a massive upsurge in violence. Middle-class Unionists who had drifted away from politics would join in. There would be civil war. I speak as one who abhors violence.'

A wizard one day might manage to create a road out of the yellow bricks of the star on Conway Square. Until then, Newtownards will be forced to contemplate the manhole.

(Photograph omitted)

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