Ceasefire: 'They talk to us like we're wee boys': Geoffrey Beattie returns to Belfast and hears worried voices on Protestant streets

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IT WAS Day One of the ceasefire. The news bulletins were saying that the ceasefire was holding. The scholars of semantics were out scouring the hundreds of lines of spoken and written text to determine whether 'complete cessation of military activities' could be somehow interpreted as synonymous with 'permanent'.

John Hume had said the previous night on television that he had got his dictionary out and looked up the meaning of 'complete'. He had read out all the meanings - 'entire, whole, brought to an end, brought to perfection, absolute, utter'. He said that this was as clear as you could get. I wanted to ring him up and ask what a 'cessation of military activities, brought to perfection' implied. Gerry Adams was scolding us all. He referred to these furious attempts to understand and decode the statement as a 'distraction'.

Completely unconnected with the ceasefire, four IRA prisoners, including one convicted for his part in the Brighton bombing, were being transferred to prison in Northern Ireland. Quid pro quo. But what was to be traded next? John Major said that there were no secret deals and no secret understandings. Everything, he protested, had been said publicly.

I was back in my home territory. Over the years this area of north Belfast, which acts as a boundary between two distinct territories, one loyalist, one republican, has been a killing ground. The news said that the war was over, but even here in this most unstable of all areas, these little streets of working- class houses built right on the fault line between the two great land masses, one of which is orange and one of which is green, there was little celebration. Far from it. You could see it in the tight, rigid faces. You could sense the concern about this most uncertain of futures.

The loyalist community of north Belfast watched the news bulletins along with everyone else. But much, much more warily. Few believed their Prime Minister.

The sun was shining, and there were more people than usual on the street corners. 'Let's face it,' said one man in his forties - 'Gerry Adams was greeted on the Falls like he'd won the World Cup. Now I've always been a footballing sort of man. We all are, on both sides. You've read the graffiti on the walls on the Falls. 'IRA 2 Army 0. Then they hit the bar.'

'They write that sort of thing when they've blown up some pub or other. But did Gerry Adams look like the captain of a team, who's just said that he's going to stop his foul play? No way. He looked as if he knew that the game was won. The referee had tipped him the wink. I hope John Major knows what he's doing. I hope that he hasn't scored an own goal.'

Bobby has always been fond of his football metaphors. But I told him this whole terrible conflict wasn't necessarily a game with winners and losers, a zero- sum game where one side's gain meant the other side's defeat. He looked at me as if I was daft. 'Of course, there are other ways of looking at the Troubles. Gerry Adams has been saying for years that it was a war, and the IRA tells us now that the war's over. Well then, if it was a war, I want some IRA men tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity.'

Bobby had made his point. 'Either that or it's a game, a bent game, and Adams has pulled a few strokes to nobble the opposition.'

The view on the streets seemed to be that some serious strokes had been pulled. I heard two pensioners standing in the street discussing the ceasefire. I caught their conversation mid-flow.

'They must have been promised something.'

'Something good.'

'Something very good.'

'Sure they have.'

'Do you think the IRA are going to give up just like that?'

'You must be joking.'

'What changed their minds?'

'John Major's government has lied to us once, they'd do it again.'

'They'd lie to you as soon as they'd look at you.'

'Secret negotiations with the IRA were bad enough. Now, they're going to do it out in the open.'

'The British and Irish governments and the Yanks are all going to sit around a table, and decide our future. Nobody wants our view. But we'll not stand for that.'

'The graffiti's going up all over the place. The loyalists are very busy.'

'Have you seen the one 'Better to die on your feet than on your knees in a united Ireland'?'

'There are some new murals going up as well, lovely big, coloured ones.'

'They're fantastic those artists.'

'There's going to be a civil war.'


'Oh, definitely.'

In the butcher's, they were discussing the visual images, rather than the words that had been issued in statements or the words that might have been issued behind closed doors. It was the triumphalism among the republicans that seemed to rankle, and what that triumphalism implied. The elderly woman waiting for her stewing steak was enraged. 'They were flying the tricolour all over the place. There were these hussies walking along the Falls, swinging the tricolour and all these wee shites climbing up the lampposts hanging them out. They were celebrating alright. They think that they've got our country. The English don't seem to understand why we're angry. We're British. There's no two ways about it. My father fought against the Germans. It would be like watching the Germans flying Swastikas in London after the Second World War.'

Her friend agreed. 'When the Catholics get settled in, they'll not be like the Protestants were. They'll show us who's bloody boss. Do you think that the Orangemen will ever be allowed to walk again? And what about what Adams said about the RUC. He said it would have to be disbanded. I heard that the Taigs were writing 'Gardai' all over the police stations. They think that it's a united Ireland already.'

I left the butcher's for the park. Annie was sitting with her son and her dog, enjoying the bright sunshine. 'The way I see it is this. Adams wants all the IRA out of English jails and back in Northern Ireland. After that they'll be asking for an amnesty for all the IRA men. They'll be opening the gates and letting all the cowboys walk free. When they get out, they'll be riding the range naturally. The fellas in the big picture. But what are they going to be doing on the streets? What kind of work will they get? They'll have to do something. What have they been trained for except killing people? Perhaps Gerry Adams will get them all jobs. He used to be a barman. Perhaps he'll get them all fixed up in bars all over Belfast.'

She felt that the loyalists were being dictated to. Their voice not listened to. 'Did you hear what yer man Dick Spring had to say - the Unionist community have nothing to fear from Dublin. They're talking to us Unionists as if we're wee boys. 'It's alright, son, we won't touch ye. You'll be safe with us.' '

Her son was even less impressed. He had gone to university in England, now he was back in Belfast, his home, looking to start a career. 'Did you hear Albert Reynolds on the news last night? He was talking down to us like a schoolmaster. He was saying that in the context of the whole statement from the IRA that 'complete cessation' meant 'permanent'. He was saying that you have to take the context into account. He makes me laugh. It's the overall context that matters, not just the words in that little statement. The overall context is that the IRA will be storing its guns to use again in the future, if it doesn't get what it wants. That's the overall context Albert Reynolds should be focusing on. Plus, Joe Cahill's in the United States to explain the ceasefire to Noraid. What's there to explain? That's what I want to know. I hope the politicans realise that our identity is not open to negotiation.'

I left Annie and her son enjoying the sun in the park, imagining possible futures. 'The funny thing is,' said Billy on the street corner. 'That Adams is coming across all reasonable, after trying to blow the ass off us for 25 years. He's trying to make out that we're unreasonable because we're a little bit wary of greeting him with open arms. Everybody wants peace. That doesn't need saying. He says that it's time to break the political, constitutional and military stalemate.

'But what constitutional stalemate is that? The Downing Street Declaration says, correct me if I'm wrong, that the views of the majority in Northern Ireland will determine whether the province remains part of the United Kingdom. And we know what the majority in Northern Ireland want, including a lot of Catholics who know what side their bread is buttered on. But Adams only wants the one thing, and that's a united Ireland. So he wouldn't be prepared to give up the killing unless he knows that he's going to get it. Somebody's not telling the whole story. I just want them all to know that there had better not be any sell-out.'

On that note, he said that he had got to go back to work. He pulled a paint brush out of his canvas hold-all. 'We all have to do our bit,' he said - 'to make sure there's no sell- out.' He started with 'No Surrender'. The same old tired expression suddenly given new vitality with all the uncertainty in the air.

'I just hope that John Major can read the writing on the wall,' said Billy after a long, ominous pause.

(Photograph omitted)