EACH Saturday for over a year, a dozen or so people have gathered in front of City Hall here to hold a peace vigil.
A few months ago their protest might have seemed a testament to folly. But last Saturday, meeting for the first time after the outlawed Irish Republican Army announced an unconditional cease-fire, the group faced a dilemma. As the group furled their banners and prepared to disperse on a rainy afternoon, one woman asked, ``So, are we going to meet again next week?''
After mulling the question, the peace activists decided not to gather again, ``unless, of course, there's some kind of trouble,'' the group's leader added.
The activists' tentative approach on peace prospects in Northern Ireland is widely shared by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities that have battled each other for the past 25 years in this British territory. The nationalist IRA's open-ended cease-fire, announced Aug. 31, may be a cause for optimism. But few in this shell-shocked and divided city are totally convinced that a lasting peace is at hand.
``We're all hopeful, but excuse us if we're not jumping up and down. It's been a long 25 years. Give us a couple of days, or a couple of months,'' said one Belfast resident who gave her name only as Maggie.
It is far from certain that the peace activists won't have cause to be out there again next Saturday. While the IRA - which has waged a terror campaign to end British rule of Northern Ireland and unify the region with the Republic of Ireland - has renounced violence, its Protestant paramilitary foes have not. And on Sunday, a car bomb detonated outside the press office of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of several outlawed Protestant armed groups, claimed responsibility for the explosion, which damaged several buildings but caused no injuries. The UVF over the weekend reportedly had been considering a cease-fire declaration of its own, but the car blast seemed to indicate otherwise.
IRA shores up discipline
Despite the bombing - along with the murder Sept. 1 of a Catholic by another Protestant paramilitary force, the Ulster Freedom Fighters - IRA officials say they won't be goaded into retaliating.
``The IRA is a disciplined force and will not be provoked by anyone who is trying to wreck the peace process,'' Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing), said at a Friday news conference in Dublin.
In recent days, Sinn Fein leaders have vigorously pursued their peace offensive. One top Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness, said the IRA was prepared to abandon its insistence that Northern Ireland be unified with the republican south ``if the Irish people decided on something else.''
At his news conference, Mr. Adams called on Protestant groups to also declare a cease-fire. And he sought to soothe Protestant fears that any future peace deal would render them second-class citizens. Protestants make up about 60 percent of Northern Ireland's population.
``Unionists must be involved, we can't make peace without them,'' Adams said, referring to the Protestants. ``All of us have a heavy responsibility to respond with imagination, generosity, and flexibility, and to turn the potential for lasting peace into reality.''
Many Protestants, the vast majority of whom want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, are wary of the IRA's olive branch. Poll results published Friday in the Belfast Telegraph daily found only 30 percent of all Northern Ireland residents believed the IRA had permanently renounced violence, while 56 percent considered the cease-fire to be temporary. The remainder was undecided.
Will Britain back out?
In addition, 49 percent believed Britain was willing to renege on a pledge not to alter Northern Ireland's status without the consent of a majority of its residents. Thirty-four percent trusted Britain, while 17 percent were undecided.
Any British deal with the IRA could lead to ``the destruction of our faith and our freedom,'' said the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, a radical Protestant organization.
British Prime Minister John Major, facing considerable pressure not only from many Northern Irish Protestants, but also from hard-liners in his Conservative Party in London, insisted Sunday no secret deal has been cut. He added the IRA must declare its cease-fire to be ``permanent,'' instead of just open-ended, before his government would talk to Sinn Fein leaders. Adams criticized Mr. Major for playing ``word games.''
Adams is expected to hold first-ever talks with Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds this week in an effort to convene a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Also to allay concerns over the cease-fire, Adams reportedly will be granted a visa to the US and will visit within the next two weeks. The London newspaper The Guardian says he will be speaking around the country, to bolster support among Irish-Americans for the current cease-fire.
While the major players start positioning themselves for what promises to be complicated peace negotiations, tension in Belfast seems to have eased a little, but the routine has yet to change.
In the downtown shopping area, security officers checked the bags of everyone heading into the main shopping mall and searched cars entering parking lots.
Meanwhile, British Army units in full battle gear continued to patrol the streets, although residents said the military presence had been scaled back since the IRA cease-fire took hold last Thursday.
``I can't wait for them to get out,'' said one butcher, speaking in his shop on Falls Road, the main Catholic area of Belfast shortly after a British patrol walked past. ``We've been treated like the blacks have in America.''