Leading Article: Hope out of outrage

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The Independent Online
SUMMER STREET violence remained the curse of Northern Ireland even when other symptoms of the Troubles began to subside. The trigger was nearly always the desire of Protestants to march and the unwillingness of Catholics to be marched through. But what the headlines have not so far told us is that the summer of 1999 has turned out very differently from usual. For whatever reason - and the tragedy of Omagh exactly a year ago today has a lot to do with it - this year's marching season has been the quietest for three decades. The season draws to an end with the annual apprentice boys' parade in Londonderry. Even the nationalists' slightly synthetic anger surrounding yesterday's march was largely provoked by a row over the route of a subsidiary "feeder" march along Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast. Apprentice boys gather from all over the province, usually by bus, and a small Belfast detachment wanted to get in some early "in your face" marching practice on its way to the bus stop. The Parades Commission decided to allow it to do so. And though there was a final breakdown in the pre-march talks between marchers and residents in Londonderry, this was the first time there had been direct negotiations. Without the Lower Ormeau Road complication, they might even have reached agreement.

Tension generally between the communities in Londonderry is not high - this is the city that likes to think it pioneered the peace process. Rather than worrying about who does what on the city walls, its thoughts today are much more with the martyred town of Omagh, the families and friends of the 29 who died, and the 350 who were physically injured - the emotionally injured would have to be counted in their thousands.

The Omagh massacre, the largest single death toll of the entire conflict, has in no way lost its special meaning in the intervening 12 months. It came as a shattering shock even in the ranks of hardened republicans. It is said that discussions in the IRA about whether to abandon the Good Friday process come to a stop at the mere mention of Omagh. Had the so- called "Real IRA" not declared its own ceasefire shortly afterwards, it would probably have been taken out by angry Provisionals. The list of likely suspects is long but only one man is in custody, which suggests that the joint RUC-Garda investigation has not had much co-operation from the community. If that implies residual republican sympathy for the bombers, however, it appears to be conditional upon a continuing ceasefire. It is a control mechanism, not a vote of confidence.

The nine killings that can clearly be attributed to paramilitaries since Omagh are split more or less equally between the two sides; and the most common motive appears to be what the paramilitaries, with their love for chilling euphemisms, call "internal discipline". Informers or drug dealers are being eliminated, or old scores are being settled between the UDA and the UVF. These are not random sectarian killings in the conventional - or Omagh - sense: violence of a sectarian character is at its lowest level at least since 1969. Mo Mowlam is to have talks this week with the security forces, and she is likely to hear them report that the ceasefire - at least as defined by the paramilitaries themselves - is holding. There has indeed been a genuine "cessation of military operations", if not yet the decommissioning of the means to resume them.

That remains the rub. The mutual presumption of bad faith between the principal contributors to the July breakdown, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, is as profound as ever. Nevertheless when the peace process was "parked" a month ago it was assumed that the rising level of tension associated with the marching season would have precluded meaningful dialogue. That turns out to have been too bleak an estimate. Rioting seems to have lost its pleasure. Indeed, 1999 may come to represent the year Northern Ireland learnt to live with its marchers without doing itself further harm - which may therefore make it the year when marching began to have less point. If Northern Ireland has not yet learnt to settle all its differences politically through the network of mechanisms set up under the Good Friday Agreement, even that looks more possible than it did a month ago. The Unionists seem at last to recognise the need to cut a deal.

Omagh is still the defining moment of recent Irish history. The outrage of that act of mass murder, and the calm dignity of the grieving and suffering people of Omagh in response to it, remain demonstrations of the worst and best that human nature is capable of. Omagh is cause enough to be sorrowful and angry, but also a very good reason to be hopeful.