Warm applause for Unionists in the lions' den

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The Independent Online
The 600-strong audience in Conway Mill, in the heart of the republican Falls Road, warmly applauded the strangest things. They clapped when speakers said the IRA had to decommission its weapons and that prisoners who had killed could not expect to walk free from jail.

They applauded, at some length, the Protestant minister who declared: "I want to pay tribute to the folk who joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary to serve both communities, who paid the ultimate sacrifice and are dead."

The meeting, on Wednesday night, had an Alice in Wonderland flavour. Many in the audience were members or supporters of Sinn Fein, who are more used to saluting the volunteers of the IRA: yet here they were clapping praise for the RUC.

But this was a new type of meeting, and one which showed the distance travelled since the IRA cessation of violence almost a year ago. It also showed how far there is still to go in the peace process.

The panel, for a "Question Time" session, consisted of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, Mark Durkan of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Albert Reynolds, the former Fianna Fail leader who was Taoiseach at the time of the ceasefire.

Most unusually, there were two Unionists, the Rev Ken Newell, and Roy Garland. Neither man is a significant political figure, but their presence had huge symbolic significance in this republican lions' den, dominated by a huge portrait of the IRA martyr Bobby Sands.

Each member of the panel was given a hero's welcome. Martin McGuinness got great applause when he outlined Sinn Fein's positions: no decommissioning of IRA weapons, all-party talks now, release of prisoners and disbandment of the RUC.

Albert Reynolds too was given a great reception as he knocked the British government, as he has done repeatedly since he lost office, and supported the Sinn Fein line on decommissioning, the release of prisoners and talks. At the end he was besieged by well-wishers and autograph-seekers.

But the applause for the Unionists when they voiced often directly contradictory views was by no means polite or perfunctory - on the contrary, it was warm and often prolonged. A series of speakers thanked them for coming.

On prisoners, Mr Newell said: "I don't feel that people who have taken life and shed blood and devastated families forever can simply walk out." On guns, he said: "Unionists feel that if Sinn Fein do not get what they want out of round-table talks, there will be a return to violence."

A Conway Mill audience can surely never have heard anything like his tribute to the RUC before - still less react to it, as they did, with a warm round of applause. He was tackled from the floor on a number of points, though generally in a non-confrontational manner.

Speaking of the Unionist community, he had little immediate comfort to offer those seeking a loyalist De Klerk who would make a historic deal with nationalists. There were creative currents within Unionism, he said, but it would be three or four years before the Protestant community fully thought through its future.

He summed up with a frankness that the audience clearly found disarming: "I've been conscious of anger towards me as well as a welcome, and it's a funny feeling. "We need to talk to each other: because we haven't been talking, a lot of pressure and anger and bad feeling has built up on both sides. I certainly feel there are enormous misconceptions, and the challenge for me is how you take this discussion out into the grass roots.

"We have to work out where to go together from here, because at the moment we're not friends, we haven't got the emotional bonding that we need if we're going to build a community that is worth living in. There's no future if we can't become friends."

The audience up the Falls Road, an area which has become an international byword for violence, again reacted with prolonged applause. The years of violence and isolation have left these people with a deep feeling of having been treated unfairly and unjustly by Unionism and by Britain. But on Tuesday night they also displayed other characteristics: tremendous hospitality and good humour, toleration and goodwill, and a palpable eagerness to reach out and enter dialogue with old foes.