Ulster rivals join forces to attack sectarianism

David Trimble and Martin McGuinness attended the same public rally for the first time, held in protest against recent outbreaks of violence and sectarianism.

Dripping wet like everybody else, the Ulster Unionist leader and the republican chief negotiator stood in driving rain with 15,000 others outside Belfast City Hall.

TheBelfast trade union rally was called to express collective condemnation of the killing of a Catholic postman and the recent threats to postal workers and teachers. Elsewhere, at half a dozen other rallies across Northern Ireland, thousands more endured the rain and the cold to pay their tribute to Danny McColgan, the 20-year-old shot dead by loyalists last weekend.

The trade unionists on the platform spoke against sectarianism, violence and divisions, but the heartfelt eloquence came from the people standing in the rain, their umbrellas forming something of a communal tent.

One woman explained why she had come. "It's absolutely abhorrent, this carry-on of shooting people at their work. My father was killed at his work in the Seventies, then my mother had a heart attack and died a year later because she couldn't cope with it. I don't want it to happen over again to anybody else."

Another woman added: "A fella going to his work every day, shot down dead – a fella just starting his life, cut down in his prime, a child who'll be growing up, no father. I had hoped we'd seen the last of this. How can the people who did it lie in their beds at night?"

A third woman began to speak of her sympathy for "the wee boy Daniel McColgan" but broke down in tears. "Sorry, I just get so emotional about it," she said, turning away.

A round of applause greeted the arrival of postal workers and teachers marching with banners. One postal worker, a Protestant, said: "I hope the people who are responsible for these atrocities will take note of it and that'll be the end of it." His workmate, a Catholic, added: "This job demands that you go into areas where you don't feel a hundred per cent happy. At the moment people are very nervous, very unhappy with the way things are."

From the stage came a resolution read out not only in Belfast but also at the other rallies in Cookstown, Enniskillen, Londonderry, Omagh, Newry and Strabane, expressing revulsion at bigotry, sectarianism and intimidation.

One speaker declared: "Violence doesn't work. Sectarianism is evil – a theme which has the support of the vast majority of Northern Ireland citizens irrespective of political or religious affiliations."

Under the umbrellas a Royal Mail man called Jackie, wearing a bright orange safety jacket, put it in plainer language: "We're just hoping that at some stage of the game these people's gonna catch themselves on and just let us work and live the way other societies do.

"Unfortunately we live in a situation where at the drop of a hat people are prepared to murder people for no apparent reason. Everybody's got to get their heads out of the sand and start just acting like normal people in a normal society. We can't continue to kill our young ones for nothing, there's no reason for it."

Unionist and Sinn Fein politicians were sprinkled throughout the crowd, not standing together but still within the same gathering, signifying some increase in a sense of common purpose.

There were schoolchildren there too, including some boys from a Catholic grammar school. "We're here because we're absolutely disgusted at the murder of your man the postman," said one. "One of my teachers said, 'All evil needs is for good men to do nothing'." Another said: "That's right. You have to make a stand, don't you, at some stage. Our parents did it for civil rights – it's time for us to do our part, to speak out against it."

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