People of Northern Ireland find hope in defiance of history--and terrorist bombs

September 22, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARKETHILL, Northern Ireland -- Barbara Little watched the bomb go off from the hill on Mowan Road. "It was a huge fireball," she said of the blast that made this little town a little bit smaller.

It was an Irish Republican Army bomb, 1,000 pounds of homemade explosive packed into a blue Toyota parked in front of the headquarters of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

A telephoned warning was received. Everybody nearby was evacuated, including Mrs. Little and her two children. There was no time to do anything about the 900 sheep in pens beside the police station.

L It happened on a recent Wednesday, market day in Markethill.

More than 700 sheep were killed or had to be destroyed. The two-story cement block police station disappeared entirely. The Spence Bryson Weaving Factory that stood across the street is half rubble. Three houses in Mowan Court, maybe four, have to be torn down.

Nobody was killed or even seriously injured. But Markethill no longer has a town center.

What is to be done?

"Rebuild," said a young man sweeping up the debris in part of the linen factory.

"What else?" asked another.

A third said, "This is the fourth time," the fourth IRA bomb in the past two decades to go off in Markethill.

"It's because the town is 90 percent Protestant, and because they've got a clear run to the border," said a fourth.

None would volunteer his name. None seemed afraid. Anonymity just seemed the more sensible option.

Nor were the men angry, just determined to build it all back up again.

A plucky town is Markethill.

Hope survives

Among the people of Northern Ireland hope seems almost inextinguishable. They have been at war with each for so long that what happened at Markethill was not rare.

Hope rests on a variety of premises. Some believe the IRA and the other paramilitary organizations will be defeated by the British Army. But not many.

Some think the terrorists will tire of it all. There are even fewer of these.

Others foresee developments far away having a felicitous impact, things like the Single Market 1992, Europe's next lurch rTC toward unity.

This will be such a transcendent event, it is thought, it will make irrelevant virtually all territorial disputes within the area it encompasses.

Borders will vanish. Funds will pour from the European Community coffers to the poorer regions such as Ireland, north ++ and south.

In such a world, what meaning would these rustic struggles have for people whose gaze has been lifted beyond?

Reg Empey and John Hume are leaders in parties at odds in their purposes, but joined by their optimistic expectations.

Mr. Empey is an Official Unionist Party council member of the Belfast city government; he stands for strengthened ties with Britain. His is the largest party in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hume leads the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which seeks a constitutional joining of the two parts of Ireland. It is the second-largest party.

Both see 1992 as ameliorating the current strife.

Mr. Hume believes the example of conflict resolution Europe has set will not be lost on the warring Irish and British.

"Fifty years ago, if anyone had said there would be a united Europe, he would have been called a madman," he said. "The Europeans concluded that the only answer to war was always war, so they set about to build institutions that would accept the diversity of peoples. That is what we have to do here."

Mr. Hume also is encouraged by Britain's abandonment of any strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Accord in which Britain acknowledged that, because 42 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland is Catholic and largely republican, the Republic of Ireland had a right to be consulted about British policy here.

For others, hope hangs on a revival of the all-party talks that brought together most of the province's major parties before they collapsed July 3.

Getting the parties together in one place was considered an achievement in itself. Patsy McClone, the general secretary of the SDLP, expects the talks to be restarted, possibly next year, and to better purpose. So do Mr. Hume and Mr. Empey.

Even Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the anathematized party that speaks for more than 30 percent of Catholic voters in Northern Ireland, expects new talks to occur. His party was not invited last time, but he, too, has his hopes.

"The British will talk to us," he predicted. "This protracted stalemate must be broken. People want to see a peace process. They want to see politicians exercising leadership."

He added: "We're going to be part of a peace process."

Mr. Adams has known as much violence as any of Northern Ireland's leaders. He was shot six years ago during an election campaign. He has spent 4 1/2 years in prison as a consequence of his connection to the IRA.

2,900 dead

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