We fear the return of loyalist death squads

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The Independent Online
FOR the young people of Catholic Belfast it was the end of a dream, but for the older generations the collapse of the IRA ceasefire this weekend had a hopeless inevitability about it.

"We've had two Christmases of peace," Patrick Delaney, who owns a wool shop on the fiercely republican Falls Road said yesterday, "and that's it. It's as if nothing ever happened."

After18 months the community had come to take peace for granted, and the graffiti that once read "welcome to Beirut" had been washed away. But yesterday the tension had returned to what was formerly one of the most dangerous parts of the city.

The atmosphere on the Falls was a mixture of shock and subdued resignation. Mr Delaney, 41, was among those who professed themselves saddened but not surprised, and blamed John Major. "There's a sense of hopelessness and pointlessness again, that we had before. It's just back to square one," he said.

"The thing we fear most is not the road blocks or the troops on the street, we've got used to that. It's the return of the loyalist death squads; you're afraid for yourself, your kids, everyone," he added.

Already republicans at the Falls Road offices of Sinn Fein, who have not condemned the bombing in London, say the clock has turned back to the climate of fear that reigned in Belfast before the ceasefire. A security camera watches all visitors entering the offices, where a Roll of Honour to the second battalion of the Belfast brigade of the IRA takes pride of place on the wall.

One man, who described himself as a Sinn Fein community worker but would not be named, said everyone was anxious. "We put our drop bars back on the doors last night," he said. "I'd put mine away in a cupboard 18 months ago, but now the death squads are a fear again. A lot of old people I work with can't believe it. Everyone is asking, why did John Major not make it work?"

Since the ceasefire a new stream of graffiti has replaced the old slogans on the Falls, all of them referring to IRA prisoners. One reads: "Stop the torture of Irish POW in English jails."

But the mood among the younger generation was different: more a fierce anxiety the ceasefire should not be lost. At Ed's Cafe Andrena Murphy, 29, a Catholic who grew up around the Falls Road, was drinking coffee with two Protestant friends, an unthinkable act before the ceasefire.

Ms Murphy said: "I can't bear the thought of it going back to what it was. Everything had become so relaxed. We all mixed together for the first time. Now they've ruined it for everyone by doing this."

She added: "What I dread most is the return of the road block on the Falls Road. It took half an hour to get through. I'd never go into the city centre then anyway, because I couldn't cope with pretending I came from somewhere else, and changing my name."

She met her friend Paul McGuffin, 21, a Protestant from south Belfast who had never ventured to the Falls road before, and Paul McCormick, 19, also Protestant, at the fast food restaurant in the City centre where they all work.

Mr McGuffin said: "It feels like we were in a dream that lasted for 18 months, but now we've woken up from it. Already the police are everywhere asking questions, searching car boots." According to Mr McGuffin the mood in the city has already changed dramatically.

The House of Adoration, a Catholic convent on the Falls, was inundated with calls from distraught locals last night, following the news of the London bombing. At yesterday morning's Mass the chapel was packed for special prayers for peace.

"People are devastated," said a nun, who did not want to be named. "I was shocked, we took it for granted the ceasefire would last for ever."

For those who built their lives on the back of the ceasefire, and abandoned the rules that once governed the divided city of Belfast it was especially painful.

One Catholic taxi driver, who would only give his name as Anthony, started a relationship with a Protestant woman 11 months ago, just after the ceasefire began. No-one in Belfast is more aware of the city's dangers than the taxi drivers, having been among the greatest targets of violence from both sides of the conflict.

The driver, aged 27, said he lived in a Catholic area of predominantly Protestant east Belfast. "We lived in constant fear of the IRA hijacking our cars on the one hand, and also in fear of the loyalists," he said.

But he added yesterday that his greatest fear was whether his girlfriend would still stay with him. "I don't know what will happen. All that uncertainty has come back. I can't bear to think about the future if its not with her, this could ruin my life. We thought the ceasefire would last forever."