Voices of Ulster in search of peace

Opinions: are you optimistic about the future?
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The Independent Online
Seamus Heaney, poet

The ceasefire created new conditions. There was the sheer surprise that people experienced when they allowed themselves to believe that change for the better was possible. This minimal hope represented an immense psychic, if not political, shift and put new spirit into all that has happened since. Even if the ideological stalemate between the parties was not affected, a deep inertia had been broken.

But this was merely a prelude, not an achievement. Everybody in Ireland, north and south, like it or not, knew in their bones that some historic change was possible. So it is to be hoped that the British government, despite its perilous sluggishness, can still find ways to match these expectations.

I am not optimistic, but I am still minimally hopeful. I hope the British government has the sense to realise - as we do here - that it must act as a matter of urgency to make sure the momentum is not lost.

Colin Parry, whose son Tim died in an IRA bomb at Warrington in 1993

The speed of the ceasefires caught us by surprise and delighted us. Despite the less serious violence still going on, God willing, peace will hold. But there seems to be a lot of posturing now. I wish that the Government was a bit more flexible but I think it is tied by the Unionists' dogged line on decommissioning. I can't understand why Sinn Fein cannot make the all-important gesture of beginning to hand over arms. Everyone recognises they have changed their position, but the ball is in their court. It would not be seen as the surrender they think it would. It would be a mature action.

David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party

I am delighted to be luxuriating in a sense of peace. Essentially I am optimistic. But a summer of Republican "angry voices and marching feet" has not inspired the Unionist community with confidence. Sinn Fein has not behaved well.

Do they want to push people towards Paisley and the old tribalism? A year is a short time compared to 25 years of violence and hundreds of years of bitterness, and Unionists must feel more confident before all- party talks. I come from a paramilitary background and I understand the need to keep the hard men on board, but ordinary Unionists don't. I think bilateral talks are the way forward at the moment. Why won't the IRA say their weapons won't be used as a first strike?

Billy Power, one of the Birmingham Six

The calling of the ceasefire by the IRA was brilliant, as is the fact it has held for a year. But the British government is not moving quickly enough, particularly on the early release of prisoners.

The years I spent with IRA prisoners in British jails deeply affected me. I saw how badly they were treated. I know how cruel it is not to transfer them to prisons nearer their families. Now we have a permanent ceasefire, it is scandalous that republican prisoners are still held after serving 20 years. Sir Patrick Mayhew's announcement about sentence cuts was far too little.

Sinead O'Connor, musician

Now that we have heard the first Christian bells, which are the sound of non-violence, we are being allowed to talk. And we are safe to talk about how it came to be that we got so messed up. We are free to remember our history and to learn from it.

I see an Ireland which is whole again, which can find its own identity from among the ashes of its childhood days, because it need no longer be afraid to look at the ghosts of the past. I feel Ireland will return to its old ways and laws and be an example for peace throughout the world and an example for bravery in speaking out. I see that Rome and England are leaving and the curse is over.

Mitchel McLaughlin, national chairperson of Sinn Fein

Twelve months ago, the IRA made a courageous contribution to the evolving peace process. But we still do not have peace; we do not even have peace talks. Nobody can say when, or even if, they will commence. Initial optimism has been undermined by the British government, which keeps the peace process on a drip-feed of minimalist gestures. It is telling us that the old agenda remains intact - the psychology of war demands victory and surrender. Its policies have created this conflict and encourage Unionist intransigence. Britain must move immediately with the Dublin government to all-party talks. Peace in Ireland is only possible through negotiation and agreement. For all of us, the negotiating table is the only place to go.

Frank Caddy, chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce.

In the past 12 months, Belfast has become normal. Money has been lost from our economy because the security forces have been cut, but there has been an upsurge in tourism and in the numbers venturing in from the suburbs to shop. I think the ceasefire will hold, but to be honest the establishment has not been pro-active enough in cementing this peace after a ceasefire. Both sides have to move towards the middle and both have to feel they have won. That takes a skilled negotiator. We lack a person of vision with no baggage. Sir Patrick Mayhew is a great guy but he has not got the fervour needed. Bilateral talks would be useless unless they were a step towards round-table talks. Opportunities have been lost in the past because we did not involve the main protagonists in talks.