`We all want peace and we should see the full document'

Mary Braid finds cautious optimism in Protestant Newtownards
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The Independent Online
The small, short-sighted postman seemed an unlikely gladiator. Staring intently through thick glasses he vowed: "I'll go down in the last ditch for Ulster."

It might be a lonely last stand.

Johnny seemed to be the only lunch-time fighter in the Royal Bar in Newtownards, a middle-class town inhabited almost entirely by Protestants in Unionist-dominated North Down.

In November 1981, there were plenty willing to take the postie's pledge near the main square. Then young Unionists - in jeans, balaclavas and camouflage jackets - rallied under the Ulster flag, raw recruits to the Rev Ian Paisley's short-lived Third Force.

Then, as now, their politicians warned that their way of life, and their very Britishness was under threat. Last week, John Taylor, Newtownards' Ulster Unionist MP, threatened that unless a leaked Anglo-Irish framework document was scrapped or substantially rewritten, Unionists would withdraw from the current peace process.

But in the Royal's packed public bar, most of the all-male clientele judged their MP's comments a little hasty and demanded that peace negotiations continue. A call to arms seemed embarassingly old-fashioned. "Oh Johnny, that's just drink talking," sighed the postman's buddie, Joe Wright, 47, a civil servant. "I'm not fighting anyone. We all want peace and we should see the full document."

Des, a mate with 32 years' army service, agreed. "I consider myself a true Brit. But I think somewhere down the line there will eventually be a united Ireland. We have to be involved in the negotiations to get our 50 per cent. That's what's so stupid about our politicians saying we are not going to talk," he said, adding that David Ervine, the Progressive Unionist Party member with links with Protestant paramilitaries, seems to understand that better than Unionist politicians.

All three complained of the "pathetic" performance of Unionist politicians. Mr Wright, who stopped voting a few elections ago, said: "The Troubles have wiped out political participation. Decent people don't want to get involved in politics."

At the Take Five cafe, Renee McKinty, the owner and president of the Chamber of Trade, talked warmly of the benefits of peace. Newtownards, perhaps because it is so Protestant (Catholics make up 5 per cent of its people) and prosperous, shows few outwardsigns of sectarianism.

Until the IRA launched its campaign against Protestant towns 18 months ago, Newtownards had largely escaped sectarian violence. A car bomb, left outside a restaurant ripped the town centre apart. No one was killed, but the device caused £15m damage.

"It is the small things that are making the difference," said Mrs McKinty. "There is so much less fear. Visitors are coming from a greater distance ... and older people are no longer afraid to make any trip that would keep them out after dark."

Her mother, Doris Dunbar, will celebrate her 90th birthday this week with her first trip to Belfast in 25 years.Down the street stands David Smyth's new butcher's shop, rebuilt since the bomb. The third generation in his family to run the shop, he is proud of roots that reach back to the arrival of the Scottish Planters.

The former major and Ulster Unionist councillor, insists there is no gulf between the rhetoric of angry Unionist politicians and their apparently calmer constituents. "I have had more than a hundred people phone and come in here to support John Taylor's position," he said. "They don't want to see any shared executive powers. They want no interference from Dublin..."

However, the Rev James Lamont, a Presbyterian church minister, said: "People are very worried about where the peace process is taking them as a community but I think they are still involved in accepting the peace ... They do not want to destroy what they

have just begun to enjoy."

But Mr Lamont believes that the price people will be willing to pay for peace of mind and an end of violence is yet to be determined.