Ulster's background violence fails to quell its growing optimism

'The sense that an unwelcome page of history has been turned is deep and widespread'
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The Independent Online

By any stretch of the imagination, it would be pushing it to describe this as a great summer for Northern Ireland: There has been far too much disorder on the streets for it to be regarded as one of the better marching seasons. Yet, despite all the turmoil and the hatred and the bigotry on show, there are still many encouraging little signs to give heart to optimists. Significantly, the number of optimists is itself growing steadily. It would be tempting fate to assert it flatly in print, but a large majority of people now believe that the Troubles are over.

By any stretch of the imagination, it would be pushing it to describe this as a great summer for Northern Ireland: There has been far too much disorder on the streets for it to be regarded as one of the better marching seasons. Yet, despite all the turmoil and the hatred and the bigotry on show, there are still many encouraging little signs to give heart to optimists. Significantly, the number of optimists is itself growing steadily. It would be tempting fate to assert it flatly in print, but a large majority of people now believe that the Troubles are over.

There have been few, if any, emotional outbursts of joy in celebration of this. Belfast is not given to expressions of euphoria; the thought that the post-Troubles era has arrived has taken a long time to take root; so many people have suffered so much, and so many issues have yet to be finally resolved. But for all that, the sense that an unwelcome page of history has been turned is deep and widespread.

That does not mean everything has been cleared up. Battles continue on many fronts - political, territorial and psychological, but now the growing sense is that most of the problems are residual issues that are susceptible to resolution without any resort to violence. The consensus appears to be that endgame has given way to aftermath.

But one of the less cheering features of the summer has been what might be called the background static of low-level violence. This takes the form not of huge explosions but of recurring peaceline confrontations, of paint-bombs flung at homes at 3am, of petrol bombings, of ball bearings fired into homes by catapults in the night. There have been scores, if not hundreds, of such incidents. The statistics show that most of the victims are Catholic, but Protestant homes have been attacked, too. Other targets have been damaged by arson, including Catholic schools and other premises, includingOrange halls.

The incidents have been localised and, thankfully, non-lethal, but they generate much bitterness, fear and distrust. The unpalatable fact is that such activity was all too familiar not just during the troubles but also before them. Now it seems set to continue even as the major violence subsides. It is also clear that quite a few people miss the Troubles and would like a rematch.

The Real IRA, for example, slogs on, trying to blow up towns and military bases in an attempt to reignite republican armed resistance. They seem undeterred by a string of interceptions and arrests that indicate that the security forces on both sides of the border have thoroughly penetrated their organisation. While the Real IRA will probably stagger on for months and even years, history will always associate it with Omagh. The inquests into the 29 deaths caused by that terrible bombing, which are to be held soon, will remind everyone of the horror, and demonstrate to all except the most blinkered why the violence should be a thing of the past.

The encouraging thing here, even as the Real IRA persists in its quixotic futility, is that the vast bulk of Irish republicans clearly regard them as anachronistic hold-outs, on a par with those isolated Japanese soldiers who could not bring themselves to believe the Second World War was over. Fringe republicans may yet do considerable damage, but the general republican population is clearly convinced that the way ahead does not lie in plunging backwards.

This pattern is not paralleled on the loyalist side, where a much higher percentage is having difficulty in bidding farewell to violence and intimidation. Drumcree 2000 turned out to be a deeply unintelligent affair, with Portadown Orangemen calling their brethren and supporters on to the streets. Commercial and social life came to a standstill for some days last month, as those who responded - some of them idealists, some of them merely thugs smashed out of their heads on Buckfast wine - took to the streets to inflict great damage on society as a whole and on their own cause in particular.

This process, which one visiting foreign correspondent wonderingly referred to as "Dumbcree", opened a huge fissure within Unionism. Even though a majority supported the general Orange cause, most were repelled by the intimidatory methods.

The petering out of the protests due to lack of general Protestant support has caused many Orange leaders, including those frankly baffled by the modern world, to begin a painful reassessment of their assumption that sheer unthinking determination will eventually get them through the Catholic part of Portadown.

A number of the leaders of the Orange order and other Protestant marching organisations are learning that the old days have gone and that direct dialogue with nationalists is now a necessity. This realisation has led to quiet talks with Catholics in a number of places, leading to a distinct drop in local tensions. One of the first results of this new culture of talking, and more importantly listening, was Saturday's almost entirely peaceful Apprentice Boys march in Londonderry. A city often blighted by fierce and economically damaging riots is applying valuable lessons.

Just as the Real IRA is patently isolated in republicanism, so too is the Ulster Defence Association, known also as the Ulster Freedom Fighters, becoming more isolated on the loyalist side. The organisation was to the fore during Drumcree, but its militancy and poor image were major turn offs to a majority of Protestants. Its leaders were clearly spoiling for a fight, almost on any pretext. It was pretty obvious that this aggression had little to do with the Troubles as such.

Loyalist ghetto groups are involved in turf wars and internal feuding that has cost a number of lives this year. Some are deep into the drugs trade. Little of this violence has been about protecting Ulster or preserving the Protestant heritage: it is about who wields power, and collects money, in organisations mutating from political terrorists into criminal gangs.

After the summer political recess, there will be lots more arguments, in particular on policing, where the Government has not managed to calm the debate about the future. Such contests are very real issues that have the capacity to cause major trouble.

The new political dispensation has yet to produce a feeling of real stability and permanence; but for all that, the sense is growing that despite the old problems and the new problems coming into view, the worst of the bad old days has been left behind.

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