In club where IRA veterans gather, cease-fire wins caution approval

September 01, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In the small fortress which is the Republican club called The Felons, a middle-aged teacher named Seamus turns from his Guinness to write a meditation on the midnight IRA cease-fire.

"This is a great opportunity for all the people of Ireland to set an example for the other deeply divided communities of Europe," Seamus writes. "To pull back from the brink of disaster.

"Everyone has suffered," Seamus writes. "Enough is enough is enough."

He shows it to his mates Jack and Sean before handing it over to a reporter. They think it's fine.

"We had our ethnic cleansing in the '60s and '70s," says Jack, a television soundman. Bar talk in Republican West Belfast remains full of historic hurts even if peace seems in sight.

"In the '60s, the largest forced movement of population happened in our city. Whole streets were burned to the ground."

He means that Roman Catholics were run out of many neighborhoods by the ruling Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.

You get Republican history in The Felons. The club's Gaelic name is Cumann na Meligh, which means, roughly, "Men who have done time for the Republican cause."

Most of the men here have been imprisoned in a jail which has become legend under different names in Northern Ireland: Long Kesh, the Maze, H-Block. Which is why The Felons looks as fortified as a bunker on the Siegfried Line. It's a prime target for Protestant paramilitaries.

Inside, the place looks as demure as a club for retired Chesapeake Bay watermen: lots of fake wood, a pool table, red plush in the lounge, but a gallery of portraits of ancient Fenians and Republicans on the walls.

These guys were the front-line troops during the 25 years of the IRA war. Few want their last names used even by an American newspaper. Fewer want their words taped by a recorder. The doorman suggests a donation to the club's charity fund. Even though the Republicans are putting away their arms, it seems like a good idea.

"Most of us would never have gotten even a parking ticket if we weren't fighting for the Republic," Jack says.

"We're all pacifists," says Seamus, the school teacher, only faintly ironically.

"We're hopeful," he says, of the cease-fire.

He believes the outcome depends on the British and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which most Republicans see as the military arm of the Protestant establishment. Protestant terrorism must be checked, he says.

"Our protectors have put down their arms," Seamus say. "The British have to protect our community.

"If they don't," he says, "the community here will want the IRA to go to war again."

The Felons is just across the street from the cemetery here the IRA buries its dead.

"There's not a family in this area that has not had a relative or a friend killed," Jack says, "assassinated by the loyalists. My dad was one of them.

"It's only now that I'm older that I'm going to funerals of people who have died natural deaths, of something like cancer," he says.

They talk and they drink pints of Guinness and Bass and Black Bush -- Bushmill's Irish whisky.

The cease-fire is a tactic, Seamus says.

"It's simply that the armed struggle has accomplished all it can," he says. "Now the political struggle is the way forward."

In the lounge, an out-of-work school teacher named Paul Anderson drinking ale says: "The Republican leadership are taking a gamble in the hope that things will be better for the Irish people. I think the Republicans are showing courage.

"They seem to think they can get some sort of measure of redress against the injustices here without the military links. I hope it's going to be true."

But he's skeptical: "The history of the world shows you can't get off the British without military means.

"Here in West Belfast, the people hear of British politicians talking in hifalutin terms about democracy and freedom, but it doesn't belong to their history," he says. "And it certainly doesn't belong to the British treatment of the Irish people."

He says with mordant humor that he'd like to see the British hand over their weapons: "They haven't renounced violence.

"The war is basically an irritant to the British, well, it's more than an irritant, it's an embarrassment to them, internationally. But it's not the day-to-day drudgery people experience here.

"So the Republicans would really like to see movement in Northern Ireland," he says.

There may be some already.

Jack, the soundman, spent the day working with a German television crew here for the IRA announcement. They filmed West Belfast kids talking and joking with British armed patrols.

"Something's happening," Jack says. "This morning they would have spit on the Brits."

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