In Northern Ireland, a prospect of peace and permanence

March 27, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

ROSSLEA, Northern Ireland -- Forty-seven times, the farmers of County Fermanagh rebuilt the Lackey Bridge across the River Finn, creating a crossing with old cars and trucks and crushed rocks. Forty-six times, the British army either tore away the bridge or blocked the access road.

The farmers' last bridge still stands, and a new one built by the British with concrete and steel is rising from the spring mud. Someone has even given the new bridge a charm -- a shamrock drawn on concrete.

"They're certainly not building this one to blow it up again," says Michael McPhillips, chairman of the local bridge committee.

A rebuilt bridge that lasts is a symbol of change in Northern Ireland, nearly seven months into a cease-fire that has been honored by Roman Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups and by the 17,000 British troops. The hit-and-run terror campaigns of the past 25 years have killed 3,100 people and injured 35,000. The shootings and bombings are what people call "the troubles."

Each day that passes without violence raises hope that the cease-fire that the Irish Republican Army began on Sept. 1 will bring an end to the conflict between majority Protestants, who favor continued union with Britain, and minority Catholics, who seek independence.

Politicians in London, Belfast and Dublin will negotiate the terms and sign the papers, if and when agreements are reached. But ordinary people have to live with the aftermath of murder and have to reconcile themselves to peace.

So the tentative peace has taken many forms. It is the Belfast city center, crammed with shoppers instead of soldiers. Where women once waited in lines to have their handbags searched, they now wait patiently to purchase Mickey Mouse watches at a Disney Store.

Peace is the emergency room at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, where doctors and nurses treat patients with ankle sprains and broken limbs instead of wounds from bombings.

It is a St. Patrick's Day dance at Belfast City Hall, where the British Union Jack flaps outside in the breeze, while Catholic and Protestant hold hands inside and sway to "The Limerick Falls."

"The fear and tension is gone," says Heather Floyd, a member of the Shankill Road Women's Center, in the heart of predominantly Protestant Belfast. "A year ago, you couldn't go out on the streets without looking over your shoulder. But not now. You can go out again."

In such an atmosphere, a bridge can be built to last.

The border roads of County Fermanagh offer an example of what "the troubles" wrought. Beginning in 1980, the county was divided from the Republic of Ireland by blockades, ripped roads and blown-up bridges as the British army sought to hem in the Irish Republican Army.

Farmers whose land traversed the border were forced to detour 100 miles to reach their cattle. Neighbors could see one another but had to drive an hour each way to make physical contact. Small businesses on either side of the border withered.

The farmers eventually revolted. With shovels and then with a bulldozer and backhoe, they moved dirt and rebuilt the bridges and roads.

With the cease-fire, the barriers have come down.

"Overnight, everything has changed," says John James Donahue, who for a decade had to pass through an army checkpoint to go to and from his farm. "We were prisoners here. Now, we're free."

In Belfast, there are many reminders of violence -- police stations that are part baseball batting cage, part Civil War ironclad, and wall murals depicting the martyrs of the last quarter-century of killing. There is also the "peace wall," a 20-foot-high steel barrier that snakes through the streets of West Belfast, separating Catholic from Protestant.

And violence still lurks in the shadows. Since the cease-fire, the baseball bat has replaced the gun as the weapon of choice as paramilitary groups carry out beatings instead of killings to keep control of their turf.

Malachy Clarke, 17, was one of the beating victims. On Oct. 21, he was caught sniffing glue on the Falls Road in Catholic West Belfast. A group of six set upon him, breaking his nose, rupturing an eardrum and pouring glue over his hair.

On Dec. 12, Thomas Clarke found his son hanging from the landing of his home. The suicide note said: "Do not feel as if it is your fault because it's not. It's the dirty stinking rotting piggy rats out on the streets."

Since his son's suicide, Mr. Clarke has been on a crusade to stop the terror beatings. He shadowed Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, during Mr. Adams' recent tour of the United States. He is still in a rage that the beatings have not stopped.

"I'm totally nauseated by these butchers," he says. "I feel like running out and wasting a couple of them. But then, that would bring me down to their level."

There are other victims from "the troubles" who have been forced to deal with feelings of anger and regret. Among the hardest hit by the terror campaign is Noreen Hill, a Protestant.

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