Ulster: the road to peace: City holds its breath in hope for truce

This time, Belfast's people are taking nothing for granted, writes Michael Streeter
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The Independent Online
The ceasefire was three minutes old when the two Land Rovers, one RUC, one Army, drove past the shopping centre. James, who was just nipping in to buy two cans of beer, waved his arm in the direction of the disappearing vehicles. "Just think of how much money is spent on all that lot," he said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could use some of that money for the ordinary people who live here? We don't just want peace - we want results."

Business was building up at the Kennedy Way shopping centre, just off the Falls Road; peace or not there was shopping to be done as the minutes ticked towards the noon threshold. "You still have to buy food for the family, ceasefire or not," said Martine Owens, 26, as she hurried towards Curleys supermarket. "Life and shopping go on. But I think there is more hope this time among the ordinary people that this ceasefire might last."

The truce came as a holiday bonus for Lily and her 14-year-old daughter, Nicola, who arrived back in the city on Saturday night from a trip to Bulgaria. "We only found out at the last minute and it's a good feeling," said Lily. "But it's too early to say how long it might last."

A middle-aged man called Ken, out shopping in the overwhelmingly Catholic Kennedy centre, remarked on the lack of visible celebration compared with the 1994 truce. "Last time they were blowing car horns up and down the Falls Road. I think this time we are just holding our breath."

Even at a nearby Sinn Fein rally, organised to call for the release of Republican prisoners and to herald the start of the new IRA cessation, there was little overt celebration save for the odd toot on the horn from passing motorists. Appropriately for a Sunday, much of the public reaction came during church services.

The leaders of the two main churches, Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Robin Eames and the Catholic primate, Archbishop Sean Brady, each lent their support to the calls for peace. Archbishop Eames declared: "Opportunities now present themselves for a building of trust, and I pray that under God we can move forward."

His Catholic counterpart said: "Now the task is to build the trust required to enable the peace, which many desire, to become a reality."

At Clonard monastery in the Falls, Father Gerry Reynolds, the man credited with helping to broker the last ceasefire, and possibly this one, called the news a "very welcome feast day gift" on the Feast of The Holy Redemption.

Pastor Walter Entwhistle, in a sermon at Ballygomartin Baptist church, close to the peace line dividing Catholics and Protestants in West Belfast, said prayers for the future and said people "hoped for peace". But David Prentice, a senior congregation member, feared any peace would be short lived."The foundations are not right. While enmity lasts between Protestants and the Roman Catholics there will always be wars."

One hundred yards away, William Humphrey, 29, had just come from a service at the Ballygomartin Presbyterian Church when more prayers were offered. He welcomed the ceasefire but thought - like many Protestants - that it was an IRA ploy after being out-manoeuvred by Orangemen over the 12 July marches, and was simply a bid to get Sinn Fein into peace talks. "Why wait until now to call a ceasefire? Gerry Adams doesn't have to ask for a ceasefire, he can order one."

Georgina McIlwaine, an 85-year-old Protestant living alone in a largely Catholic area, had more practical matters on her mind. She said: "Maybe now we old folk will feel able to go out at night. At the moment we are like prisoners in our homes."

In Lurgan, a special service was held in memory of Bernadette Martin, the 18-year-old Catholic girl shot dead last week at her Protestant boyfriend's home, in a murder which shocked even the most cynical and world-weary in the province.

The relentless use of violence in Northern Ireland was underlined just a few hours before yesterday's truce, when a 17-year-old Catholic youth was shot in both legs in a nationalist area of Belfast, in what police said was a "paramilitary-style punishment attack".

A human rights group later claimed that punishment beatings were the forgotten story of the last ceasefire. Nancy Gracey of Outcry said that such attacks by Republicans had risen during the 1994 ceasefire. "They got more vicious as well. It was during that time we had a young boy crucified. Another boy had spikes put through his legs," she said.