Peter Stanford concludes his writings from Belfast by looking to the future
IT may be a hackneyed journalist's ploy, but having listened to various analyses of the situation in the north of Ireland, I always sought a ray of hope for the future from the teller — a way forward.
Some had no hope at all. Bitter experience had made them cynical. Others saw theid small comer of the world as in a state of limbo, and refused to speculate beyond the end of the day.
But many did point to small things that lead to a better futuse. Take sport for instance. 'I he success of Derry Town in the League of Ireland has demonstrated how football can bring together a divided community, and in particular disillusioned young people suffering unemployment. There is no heavy police presence at games, no trouble amongst the 11,000 who turn up — including Bishop Edward Daly of Derry and his Church of Ireland counterpart — and most importantly it provides an outlet, a focus for a city hitherto known as the "cockpit" of the Northern Ireland situation.
It was such small signs that people tended to note. The• grander political designs were not as much topics of conversation as I had anticipated. The Anglo-Irish Agreement merited low-key expressions of support from most Catholics, and similarly low key grunts from Protestants. But few became heated, or dwelt on the matter
save the politicians.
Politics in the north, and indeed in all Ireland, have been dominated by the border since it came into existence earlier this century. The development of right-left dialogue has been hampered, and in fact halted in the north since direct rule came about in the 1970s.
Yet the recent Irish general election saw the perilous state of the economy as the major issue — a tribute some would hold to the longer-term importance of • e Anglo-Irish Accord. • It is as a long-term strategy ,th no clearly defined goals or timetable that this agreement is
viewed by many Catholics in the North. Unionists are quick to point out that according to ax least one priest only 20 per cent of Catholics there want a united Ireland now.
And you can see why with a casual glance round Belfast. They are more concerned with bad housing, lack of jobs, no prospects for the young, crumbling social services. And they have no way of expressing their disquiet. The Anglo-Irish Agreement offers little in the way of solutions to these dilemmas. If anything, it distracts attention away from them.
Many sections of the community in the north are anxious for a return not only to some form of devolved rule, but also for a method that will enable the day-to-day running of this region to be dealt with in a forum such as any English County Council.
But how? With so much distrust and fear in the air, it is hard to imagine an acceptable and balanced system to put these desires into effect, to ensure "close person goverment" as Willie Whitelaw once said.
And to return to that 20 per cent, lest we lose sight of the figure. There are many benefits to Catholics from being part of the United Kingdom. Their hearts may yearn for a united Ireland, but their pockets surely appreciate the lower prices, taxation, petrol, and the more extensive social service payments than in the south.
Some would go further and say that by legislating against divorce, abortion, contraception, the Republic was making itself unattractive not only to those used to civil divorce, and free availability of the pill, but also to Catholics' self-interest.
And if that 20 per cent figure is to be believed, perhaps then the efforts of the SDLP and its leaders, John Hume and Seamus Mallon point a better way forward — working within the existing framework to bring about peace and prosperity. Many churchmen would hold that this was so. Others noted the tireless work — all too often unheralded and ignored in this polarised society — of the. Northern Ireland Alliance Party which is non-sectarian.
But this is a slow, step-by-step approach that many Would brand naive. The grander gesture they hold is more effective in the currentimpasse. Fr Denis Faul is Chaplain to the Maze Prison and places his faith for the future in a widescale release of prisoners — "release the killers to stop the killing". It may sound a paradox, but Fr Faul is persuasive in the arguments he has advanced to ministers, officials and ordinary people on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Families, he holds, are the key. The numbers of young men held in prison on long term sentences for political crimes is a running sore in the side of their families and their communities. If they were to be released, he is sure that,they would not return to crime — and he quotes figues for recidivism to prove his point. The gratitude of the families would not only ensure that the young men kept on the straight and narrow, but would also break the hold of the IRA. Mothers, younger brothers, cousins who have been tempted to join or give tacit support to the men of violence because their loved ones are imprisoned, would reject that hold with a mass release of prisoners. They realise that there is no future with the Provos — the British government has to show that it offers a future.
Most people would dismiss Fr Faul's assertion. I cannot judge as an outsider to the situation, but have to admit to being seduced by it.
And perhaps it is only by such seemingly impossible gestures that this deadlock can be smashed for whatever the benefits of the small steps, their results were far from obvious on my travels. What was obvious was that this is a beautiful land and a warmed hearted people caught in a destructive limbo.