`We've been sold out but we can't walk away now'

Mary Braid finds Belfast Protestants wary, cynical but unwilling to break the peace A FRAMEWORK FOR PEACE
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The Independent Online
In the front bar of the Longfellow pub in the loyalist enclave of working-class east Belfast, the television was relaying the Rev Ian Paisley's warning that the Framework Document was "a declaration of war" on Ulster's Unionist community.

Some of the regulars glanced up occasionally at the screen but he barely disturbed the drinking or pool-playing of the majority. To the four men playing cards in the back room the political reaction to the documents - particularly Mr Paisley's - was an irritating background noise.

"Too many young men have gone to jail after taking on Paisley's ranting and raving," growled Paul, 39. "He's a scumbag, the best recruiting officer the IRA ever had." Paul, it transpired, was one of those young men. "When I was 17 I was jailed for five years for paramilitary activities," he said, refusing to elaborate on the offences. "I was one of those who listened to Mr Paisley."

Two decades later Paul is part of an increasingly politicised movement within the Protestant working class influenced by politicians like David Ervine, the Progressive Unionist Party spokesman, also an ex-paramilitary. His calm reaction to the leaking of the documents contrasted starkly with that of mainstream Unionist politicians.

Mr Ervine's message is simple. Working-class Protestants have fought the good fight for the cushioned Protestant middle class for too long and paid too high a price. He likes to emphasise the commonalities between Belfast Protestant and Catholic working classes.

This may be Democratic Unionist country - Peter Robinson, Mr Paisley's deputy, is the local MP - but the alienation of Paul and his friends from mainstream Unionist politicians is obvious. Paul believes if it was left to the established leaders there would be no peace. He has no intention of being upset by the document.

George, 40, his unemployed friend, agreed. "I've been watching the television this morning but I intend to read the document for myself and not rely on listening to politicians."

George said he was not particularly dismayed by anything he had learnt about the document so far. "We have to wait and see and we have to be in on the talks. It's bloody stupid for Unionist politicians to say we won't be there. They will end up talking and we all know they will."

"But Paisley does not speak for working-class Protestants. David Ervine speaks for us." Paul claims. Mr Ervine, born and raised a few streets away, taught him to be "less intransigent". He can remember the time when the only Catholics he met were "the ones we had by the neck". He recently paid his first visit to the Falls Road to meet a Catholic friend who shares his passion for greyhound racing. Six months of peace have broken sectarian territorial lines and led many more Protestants to meet Catholics for the first time.

"The town centre is buzzing just now," said Paul. "Lots of people are travelling in to shop and go out. Local businesses are hard hit because people used to stay in their own areas. But at least people are meeting others from different communities."

For the group of older men huddled over pints in a corner of the front bar the political disillusionment is more pervasive and criticism of politicians comprehensive. Here there is no surprise that only a few people and a Union Jack umbrella turned up in protest at the launch of the document.

"We've been sold out at the end of the day," said Jim, 51, who said he would collect his copy of the document from the Post Office on the way home. "But we can't walk away because then Protestants would be blamed for breaking the peace.

"The British public don't want us and this document is just the start of Dublin roping us in."

Jim, who served in the Army for nine years, said he was sad that Britain seemed to want to offload Ulster. "We fought in two world wars for Britain. Some would say that's history for dinosaurs, but that's the way I feel."

Jim Hawkes, who took over the Longfellow eight years ago after it had become a focus for Protestant paramilitaries, said these are hard times for Ulster's Protestants.

"We wonder who we are, where we belong and who wants us. We know Britain has wanted out of here for years."

Peace still had an "unreal" quality. "It's a bit like that margarine which pretends to be butter," said Mr Hawkes. "We're not sure yet."

He described his own state of mind as a confused mix of pessimism and hope .He believed the way forward was still to talk.

"We need to talk even if we hate each other's guts. People won't take part in a general strike like they did after Sunningdale [the 1973 agreement that set up a power-sharing executive, toppled by a Protestant general strike].

"I will walk on the 12th of July and the Nationalists will walk at Easter but we have to find our commonalities. Personally I identify more with the Northern Irish Catholic than with an English or Welshman. Northern Ireland needs something to pull us together."

Mr Hawkes said he believed change was inevitable. The young in both communities were more interested in music and clothes than in continuing the political trouble. "Both sides are losing their militants. I just hope the kids are more sensible than we were."

Middle-class Protestants responded calmly to the document's leak two weeks ago. Yesterday they said that nothing in the full document surprised or concerned them further.

Frank Caddy, chairman of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce in Belfast said the document was " sensible". He said he felt as positive as he had two weeks ago.

He said: "We're a lot better off for having the document out in the open. We have to talk. We're on a rocky road but eventually it will lead somewhere."

But there were warnings from some city businessmen to those who would overemphasise the apparent gap between Unionist politicians and some of their constituents over the document and whether Unionist politicians should enter talks.

"There probably is a bit of a gap," said one senior executive, "but it's not really as big as it's being portrayed. I can understand the resentment of working-class Protestants towards Ian Paisley but at the middle-class dinner parties I attend James Molyneaux has won a lot of respect. He didn't have many cards to play but he played them well.

"John Major has made a major mistake in not keeping the Ulster Unionists on board. They still represent the majority of Protestant opinion."

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