AS the smoke clears on two weeks of the worst disturbances since the beginning of Northern Ireland's 10-month-old cease-fire, the fate of the peace process remains hazy.
Politicians in the Republic of Ireland who are involved in the negotiating that halted 25 years of violence by paramilitary groups, have warned that the peace process is in danger of stalemate.
The sense of urgency grew on Friday when Irish Prime Minister John Bruton called for an immediate start to talks about the future of British-ruled Northern Ireland that involve all political parties. His statement came after an unscheduled meeting with John Hume, a leading moderate Catholic politician in Northern Ireland who favors peaceful reunification with the Irish Republic, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
The British government says that Sinn Fein may not be included in peace talks until it persuades the IRA to start giving up its weapons, showing that it will not resume its terrorist campaign to end British rule of Northern Ireland. It is a demand that Sinn Fein says it is unable to force the IRA to deliver.
CONCERN about the peace process increased sharply two weeks ago, when the British government released a British soldier after he served only two years of a life sentence for killing a Catholic teenager. The move sparked the first serious unrest since last year's cease-fires by Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries were announced. In Catholic areas throughout Northern Ireland, cars and trucks were hijacked and set on fire.
Disturbances in Catholic areas were followed by violent confrontations between thousands of angry Protestants and police in a small town outside Belfast, the provincial capital of Northern Ireland. Members of the all-Protestant Orange Order, founded 200 years ago and modeled on Freemasonry, demanded the right to march past a Catholic housing project to commemorate the 300-year-old victory of William of Orange over his Catholic rival at the Battle of the Boyne. Police blocked their route and after a 48-hour standoff, the issue was resolved by mediation.
Despite the heightened tension, in the Catholic enclave of the Lower Ormeau Road, the feeling about the peace process is one of hope. Some 2,500 people live in the tiny red-brick houses squeezed between two Protestant areas near the center of Belfast, where unemployment is estimated at over 50 percent.
In 1992, five people were killed in a local bookmakers' by Protestant gunmen. During an Orange march past the shop the following summer, marchers held up five fingers and gave a thumbs up salute, enraging locals. Since then they have been on a campaign to stop marches through their area. Last Wednesday, the biggest Orange day of the year, police cars filled every narrow street in an effort to prevent violent confrontation.
But 10 months of peace have started a transformation. Sitting around a table at the local community center over cream cake, a group of women talk about peace, trying to explain why they remain hopeful.
"We are not going back to the bomb and the bullet," says Jennifer, whose ex-husband was shot during the 1992 attack. She asks that her last name not be used, concerned that she could become a target because of her efforts to stop the Protestant marches if paramilitary violence resumed. "We'll keep this going because we don't want our children to suffer what we suffered. Now we are at the stage where we will stand up, we will be counted."
Jennifer tells of meetings she has had with the leaders of former Protestant paramilitaries. "A year ago I would have bet money that there is no way I would have talked to those people. I've come a long way in 10 months. The people I have sat down with and talked to, we haven't yelled at each other, we have sat there like civilized [people] and had a conversation. I can tell you the Protestants don't want to go back either."
She may be right. Protestant paramilitaries are now saying they are unwilling to follow inflammatory political rhetoric. Billy Hutchinson, a former paramilitary leader and now community activist on the Protestant Shankhill Road, says that his community is changing. "Quite a lot of paramilitaries have been instrumental in bringing about the peace. They were the people saying, enough is enough."
Jennifer's view of the peace process is that "you have to creep before you can walk. In the peace process, we are at toddler stage now."