Ulster tiptoes to a new future

David McKittrick in Belfast reflects on an uncertain year of peace in the province
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The Independent Online
Belfast yesterday marked and commemorated the year of peace but did not celebrate it. The city registered that, against the expectations of many, the ceasefire had lasted a full 12 months; but still nobody danced in its streets.

Instead it was for some a day of prayer, for the politicians a day of reiterating familiar positions, a day of hope for some that their children would know peace, but a day of cynicism for others.

Many of those who were unconvinced when the IRA announced its complete cessation are still unconvinced that it can last. Yesterday there was, if anything, more uncertainty about the peace process than there was a year ago. Those who believed it would unlock the door to a new era of dialogue and progress have experienced disillusionment as the impasse over decommissioning of arms has dragged on.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, again urged republicans to decommission arms so that round-table talks could begin, while Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein insisted the IRA would regard the hand-over of a single weapon as an act of surrender. Each accused the other of inflexibility.

Judged by such political exchanges, the peace process evidently lacks momentum and is inching rather than striding along, with little development of mutual confidence or trust. For many it is too much of an abstract process: in the republican ghettos frustration is expressed that Sinn Fein is still not in all-party talks, and that no prisoners have been released.

There is still much sectarianism and bitterness out there, with arson attacks on Orange halls and Catholic church property. The marching season's repeated disturbances were a sobering reminder that, troubles or no troubles, coat-trailing and territorial disputes will continue.

Those marches shook the confidence of many who had assumed, perhaps complacently, that the public popularity of peace meant that war could not return. The street confrontations gave a glimpse of a scenario in which a chain of minor incidents could, if allowed to escalate, conceivably threaten the entire process.

That possibility remains, yet there is much more to it than the ritual political incantations and the sound of belligerently marching feet. Beneath the surface there are many little signs of some thaws in the permafrost - meetings, many unpublicised, across the divide and across the border, personal relationships being built up, people venturing out of their shells.

The same Gerry Adams who complains that the process is in crisis has, during the year, shaken hands with Sir Patrick Mayhew, his deputy Michael Ancram, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and every major nationalist politician in Ireland. These are all people who believe in Sinn Fein's new-found commitment to politics.

Most Unionist politicians, by contrast, affect not to believe a word of it. Their role during the process has been to stay out of it and urge the Government to end it. This view was reflected last night by the Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, Eric Smyth. Speaking live on Ulster Television, in front of a city hall conspicuously free of any ceasefire celebrations, Mr Smyth said: "There's no celebration because nobody believes in it. The British government has given in to the IRA, giving them concessions after concessions, and Gerry Adams threatens every time that the peace process is going to fall down if they don't get what they want.

"I don't believe the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that there is a peace process. Yes, we've enjoyed peace as such and nobody's getting killed, but there is still racketeering, beatings and burnings.

"The IRA's bottom line is a united Ireland, so what happens when they realise they're not going to get that? I think they will return if they don't get their goal of a united Ireland."

This scepticism is shared by many in the Protestant community, which helps explain why an ecumenical thanksgiving service in the city's St Anne's Church of Ireland cathedral was attended by fewer than 200 people. But the point was made, in another part of the city, that there has already been a peace dividend.

A neon sign scrolled through the names of the more than 3,000 people who have died.

More than 100 of those people met their violent deaths in the twelve months leading up to the ceasefire: since then only three have been added to the list. Thus the peace process has ensured that more than 100 people who might otherwise be dead, are alive to hear the Lord Mayor tell them that the whole thing has been a waste of time.