Behind the Belfast Deal

Grass-roots efforts helped cement peace, and may help keep it.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On a swath of wasteland in war-scarred west Belfast, a buffer zone between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, workers are putting the finishing touches on a gleaming white building that dwarfs the homes on either side.

It will house a new United States-owned plant manufacturing diesel generators, providing 400 jobs in an area where unemployment can near 60 percent. Workers will arrive each morning through two separate entrances - one for Protestants and one for Catholics - so that nobody will have to walk through hostile territory.

The factory is a symbol of both the wariness that persists even after Friday's historic agreement on Northern Ireland's future, and of the fruits that can come of common efforts by Catholics and Protestants.

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Community leaders on both sides worked hard to persuade New York-based Emerson Electric to invest in a district that has been one of the most violent spots in Europe for the past 30 years.

West Belfast is divided by a "peace wall." In some places it is a 20-foot-high steel barrier, in others a brick wall that protects people on either side from attacks by the other. But increasingly in recent years, hands have stretched across that wall in bids to rebuild shattered communities.

While politicians will doubtless take credit for the deal signed here Friday after a marathon 33-hour negotiating session that opened the way to a more harmonious future for this sectarian province, it would not have been possible without those grass roots efforts, say the activists involved.

Crucially, they argue, it was ordinary people living on the mean streets of Belfast who pushed the paramilitary groups - the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the Catholic side and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for the Protestants - to declare cease-fires in 1994, although the IRA suspended its truce between February 1996 and July 1997.

After an IRA bomb in the Protestant Shankill Road killed nine shoppers in 1993, and a revenge attack by the UDA left eight Catholics dead in Londonderry, "people started to say 'we have to find a better way,' " recalls May Blood, a determined-looking, white-haired woman who has become a prominent community leader in the Shankill district.

"There was a huge number of meetings with the paramilitaries; it was public opinion that brought the cease-fires, and it was the cease-fires that made the talks possible," she says.

Since the cease-fires came into force, prompting the British Army to take most of its soldiers off the streets and relaxing the atmosphere in the province, tentative shoots of cross-community cooperation have sprung up, funded mainly by the British government and the European Union.

"There has been money for action groups if people did things together" such as court foreign investment or build community centers, explains Trevor Williams, director of an organization promoting contact between Catholics and Protestants.

"That gave resources to the quiet and often solitary voices which had been swamped by their neighbors," he says.

And real-life changes on the ground have come more easily than new thinking on more abstract questions, says Paddy Sloan, a community worker with the government-funded organization "Making Belfast Work" that finances the regeneration of the city's most problematic neighborhoods.

"It's very difficult to get people together to talk about reconciliation, but it's easy to get them to talk about inward investment when there is money involved," says Ms. Sloan.

The way that ordinary people in the roughest parts of Belfast have been ready to talk to their neighbors across the sectarian divide also made itself felt in the peace talks last week.

It was noticeable that in the final days of the negotiations, the major Protestant party - the predominantly middle-class Ulster Unionist Party - proved less willing to compromise than the groups representing more working-class Loyalist gunmen, supposedly more hard-line Protestants.

"The Loyalists are more prepared to do a deal than the Unionists because their clientele has suffered more," suggests Ms. Blood, whose Shankill district is strongly Loyalist. "They know what they'd be going back to, and people here are perhaps prepared to walk the extra mile so as not to go back" to the years of violence.

And if people on the streets on both sides of the "peace wall" have learned lessons from their daily lives during the 22-month peace process, politicians at the talks at Belfast's Stormont Castle over the past four months appear to have learned them, too.

"We've all seen the human side to each other, and that's all to the good," says Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm. That might not be much to boast about in most places in the world, but in Northern Ireland it counts as a signal achievement.

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