A Calm Before the Peace

After 25 years of strife, the residents of Belfast, Northern Ireland, relish an outbreak of tranquillity

THE Rev. Brian Moore recalls vividly the bomb that demolished a fish shop across the street from his Presbyterian church on Shankhill Road - the Protestant heartland of Belfast - last year. It killed nine people as well as the young man from the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who planted it.

A minister here for 23 years, Mr. Moore cannot easily forget the despair that he and his fellow clergy often felt in trying to bring comfort to the families of those killed and injured in the Catholic-Protestant crossfire known as ``the Troubles.'' But his despair has turned to cautious optimism. A cease-fire, announced Aug. 31 by the IRA and later followed by Protestant loyalist militants, has held so far.

``There is first of all a great sense of relief, followed by a feeling of unreality,'' Moore says. ``People are asking themselves, `Is this really happening?' and the mood is, `So far, so good.' ''

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the start of terrorist violence here, in which well over 3,000 people have died. The outlawed IRA has waged a bitter guerrilla war for independence from Britain. Loyalist paramilitary groups have likewise fought to ensure that Northern Ireland - the province of Ulster - remained part of Britain. Although the IRA's truce has not explicitly said its cease-fire is permanent, the British government has agreed to work under that assumption and to include Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, in talks on the province's future that are set to begin by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland and its capital, Belfast, have been peaceful for nearly three months.

From the Shankhill to the Catholic stronghold of Falls Road, the troubled streets of Belfast echo the laughter of children instead of gunfire, and people are savoring a rare peace in a land that has struggled for its identity since the English conquests of the Middle Ages.

Sheila McGuigan has lived for 23 years on New Lodge Road, a Catholic area that has seen much violence. She notices big changes by observing small things.

``At the height of the Troubles, people's front doors were always closed tight. Now they are open,'' she says. ``There is also a noticeable change in people's conversations. Not so long ago they would be talking about the previous night's murders or shootings, but now they talk about everyday things like the children's progress at school, the cost of decorating their homes, and the advent of Christmas.''

She continues: ``When I was in church the other day, it suddenly came to me as we exchanged greetings with our neighbors. People were saying to each other `Peace be with you,' but suddenly I realized that peace is with us. And that gives us all a wonderful feeling of hope.''

The business and arts communities already see tangible fruits of the cease-fire. Frank Caddy, president of Belfast's Chamber of Trade, says the IRA truce brought more visitors to the city and its struggling shops. In October, the number of city-center visitors was 9 percent higher than it was the same month last year, and the trend continues. ``In the past I would ... express hopes for better days,'' Mr. Caddy says. ``Now we can talk of looking forward, instead of having to `fight from behind.' I am using a whole new language.''

Artistic life held culture aloft throughout the dark days of the Troubles. Now, when this year's Belfast Festival at Queen's University started in November, interest took off. ``People now seem much more ready to go out and enjoy themselves,'' says the festival's acting director, Robert Agnew. At the opening concert, presenter Sheila Tracey told the audience, ``Things are a lot quieter here in Belfast - long may it last.''

``The cease-fire brings the challenge to all of us to really build a peace,'' Moore says. ``And to achieve this we also need an injection of capital and new jobs. Above all, the people are grateful that the cease-fire seems to be holding.''

Indeed, there is a long way to go before the cease-fire can be translated into lasting peace, but the relief, hope, and joy here are almost tangible. And there is laughter.

Recently a cafe in Belfast's Falls Road advertised this dish: ``Cease-fire Special - Bangers and Mash.'' That's Northern Ireland: still battered, still beautiful, still with a sense of humor.

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