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National Agenda : In Belfast Streets, the Mood Is Glum : Catholics and Protestants are too aware of what separates them to be optimistic about new talks.


BELFAST, Northern Ireland — In the cold, gray winter drizzle that makes West Belfast gloomier than usual, the whitewashed slogans on the dark stone walls along the Falls Road stand out: "Support the Peace Process" and "Back the Peace Initiative."

The upbeat messages in this heavily Roman Catholic, republican area refer to the Dec. 15 Downing Street Declaration signed by British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in hopes of finding a way to end 25 years of sectarian violence in troubled Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster.

The agreement was hailed by many as breaking new ground in the search for a negotiated solution to the longstanding struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland--a struggle that has claimed 3,100 lives since 1969. It was hoped particularly that this might be the key to luring Sinn Fein to the bargaining table. Sinn Fein is the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, which employs violence in its drive to see Ulster politically unified with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

But in the fortresslike bars in The Falls, the mood is not optimistic. For despite their expressed desire for a peaceful existence, people here sense deeply the chasm that separates Protestant Unionists from Catholic republicans in this violence-prone, British-ruled corner of the world.

"I don't see how it's going to work," said an unemployed lather in a working men's club. "The 'Prods' won't give us anything. It's all religious. That's the way it is. They like killing Catholics." Referring to a famous road in a predominantly Protestant section of town, he added: "If I went to the Shankill for a pint, I could be shot dead."

The painted slogans supporting the peace initiative--originally pushed by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, and John Hume, moderate Catholic leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party--are sometimes draped in the orange, white and green flag of Ireland.

But around the corner on Springfield Road, the red, white and blue Union Jack flies over a British army barracks, encased with steel netting to ward off grenade and mortar attacks.

And less than half a mile away is Shankill Road, the Protestant Unionist area separated from its Falls neighbor by a metal fence as daunting as the Berlin Wall.

There, a few doors away from a building blown up by the IRA in an October attack aimed at Protestant extremists, is another pub, Spartan and protected by a security barrier. Its patrons are equally glum about peace prospects.

"Outsiders don't seem to realize that we Protestants aren't Irish," said one solidly built customer. "We're British and we want to remain British, not Irish. We've been here for 400 years. We're going to stay."

"I think the British have given too much away to the IRA," added another. "The IRA wants to stomp on the majority in Northern Ireland. The British talking to the IRA makes it look as if violence pays off. They ought to take the kid gloves off and deal with the IRA as terrorists."

What was considered historic and hopeful about the December accord was that for the first time, London and Dublin cooperated closely in offering the IRA a place at a peace table. It followed secret contacts between the British and at least some elements of the IRA.


London and Dublin apparently calculated theirs as a "win-win" offer: An IRA rejection could marginalize the organization both at home and in the larger world community.

As part of the December agreement, the British also declared themselves willing to leave the fate of Northern Ireland to its inhabitants in a freely determined choice. The mostly Catholic Irish agreed to amend their republic's constitution to satisfy Ulster Protestants in the event of unification. Talks were due to begin as soon as all parties agreed, but Sinn Fein has delayed a firm response.

The party's Gerry Adams insists that before he agrees to sit down at any bargaining table, the Downing Street Declaration needs "clarification." Major says the declaration is already clear and that further conversation is tantamount to negotiation, which is not supposed to take place under the December agreement until after a three-month cease-fire. Hume,meanwhile, says Major should not object to offering a clarification to Adams if that would get the peace process moving.

"Sometimes it sounds like abstruse theological arguments in early Christendom," said one observer.

The problem is that the language in the December declaration is purposely ambiguous. It is an attempt to square the Ulster circle by offering republican militants enough to bring them to the table without outraging their equally militant Unionist counterparts.

The critical sentence in the document reads: "The British government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and currently given, North and South."


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