Peace plan spurs skepticism in Belfast

December 19, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Downtown Belfast is modestly festive with Christmas trees and sparkling lights, glittering streamers and green and red wreaths, candles and creches. The restaurants, pubs, discos, movie theaters and bingo halls are full.

But when they leave, Catholics still go to Falls Road and Protestants to Shankill Road. And judging by the talk of the town, not many expect to go home to peace very soon.

A young man riding in the front of a cab brings the city sharply into focus: "You're talking to a person whose brother was killed two weeks ago."

His voice has an Irish lilt and the soft accent of Belfast. He's a disc jockey on his way to work. He's got a nice haircut. His brother was delivering Chinese food when he was shot.

"He was Catholic, and he was an easy target," the disc jockey says. He doesn't want his name used. No one in his family has ever given an interview before. It's dangerous.

He doesn't find much hope for peace in last week's much-talked-about arrangement between Prime Ministers John Major of Great Britain and Albert Reynolds of the Republic of Ireland.

The agreement depends on the Catholic Irish Republican Army giving up violence in return for a place in peace talks.

But after 25 years of violence and 3,100 killings in the latest cycle of a century-old conflict, skepticism prevails on the streets of Belfast.

"My brother wasn't political," the disc jockey says. "We weren't allowed to talk politics at home and we aren't today. My father would break our legs."

A senseless killing?

"All killing is senseless," he says. "Nobody has the right to take anybody's life, no matter what they do or what they are. It's only innocent people who suffer."

He doesn't even vote. "Nobody in my family has ever voted," he says. "I don't have any reason to.

"The thing that gets me about this peace process is that the likes of Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson can say anything they want. But the party they need to talk to, Sinn Fein, they won't even allow them to talk on TV."

Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA, a terrorist organization to the British government and to many of the mostly Protestant Unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay part of Great Britain.

Sinn Fein leaders are barred from speaking in their own voices on British radio and television. In a charade especially odd on TV, actors speak the words Sinn Fein people say.

'Terrorists given dividend'

In the worn and cramped headquarters of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, across town and across the Albert Bridge in a Protestant neighborhood, Mr. Robinson, the icy, bright deputy leader, is downright contemptuous of the Major-Reynolds Downing Street Declaration.

"The Unionist community is saying this is the thin edge of a wedge and what is effectively a surrender process," he says.

"Through violence, terrorists are being given a political dividend, something the prime minister said would not happen."

Although the Democratic Unionists are the most militantly anti-republican among the half-dozen Loyalist parties in Northern Ireland, Mr. Robinson doesn't shrink from assuming he speaks for them all. He speaks a rhetoric inspired by about 30 years at the side of Dr. Paisley, a sulfuric preacher at his own Free Presbyterian Church.

"I just happen to think it's morally corrupt to pay off terrorists in order to stop terrorism," Mr. Robinson says. "I think it's the belief of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Over 3,000 people have been butchered in this campaign. Over 30,000 have been maimed and mutilated.

"And those who have carried out those murders and maimings are being rewarded with a seat at the conference in a time space which indicates their guns will still be smoking.

"And indeed their guns will still be in their hands, since there is no requirement initially to hand those guns over.

"That is an abject surrender to terrorism," he says. "It proves that violence works. It encourages more violence and points the way to the people of Northern Ireland that if they want to have real concessions made to them, they should take up the gun, because that's what the British government listens to."

He dismisses Sinn Fein as a front for the IRA. And he says, in fact, that the British-Irish agreement demands no "quarantine" period.

"Their political gentrification is immediate," he says.

If an election were held today, Mr. Robinson believes his DUP would wipe out the majority and more moderate Official Unionist Party, which has been very cautiously receptive to the Reynolds-Major proposal.

Uprising predicted

Both the Major government and the Official Unionists fear he's right. He speaks an apocalyptic language.

"If the people of Northern Ireland are being forced into a united Ireland, I think you can be absolutely dead-on certain there will be an uprising. People will not accept it. They will be out in the streets. They will resist it.

"Why would any majority want to give up their identity because a violent minority says they should?

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