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In Northern Ireland, a prospect of peace and permanence

THE BALTIMORE 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.

The white-haired woman living in Holyfield, on the outskirts of Belfast, runs a residential home for senior citizens. But her most precious patient is her husband.

George Hill, 64 -- known as "Ronnie" to his friends and to the hundreds of high school students he taught -- has been in a coma for nearly eight years. He was among those wounded in a 1987 IRA bombing in Enniskillen that left 11 dead.

"Ronnie can't move, he can't talk, and he can't smile," Mrs. Hill says. "He wakes up and goes to sleep." His four children have grown. He now has two grandchildren, too. Mrs. Hill fusses over him. She fluffs his pillow. Makes sure his cassette player has religious or classical tapes. Keeps up a steady one-way conversation.

"At the time of the bombing, I had neither bitterness nor hatred," she says. "I felt the Lord had taken that away from me. I was able to forgive the bombers. I can forgive them, but that doesn't say God can forgive them."

Mrs. Hill says she doesn't want an apology from the men who left her husband in a coma; they have never been caught. She considers the violence -- committed by both sides -- senseless.

"I feel for all the parents, for all the victims in this," she says. "What a Protestant feels when a loved one is murdered, a Catholic will feel."

In Armagh, Frank Smyth still grieves for his oldest daughter, Anne Marie. In February 1992, she was lured from a soccer fan club celebration to a party, where she was tortured and strangled. The attackers then slashed her throat and dumped her body in a vacant Belfast lot.

All because she was Catholic.

"It's hard to say, 'I forgive,' " says Mr. Smyth. "The thought of them even touching my daughter makes me sick. They didn't commit a political murder. They didn't pick on a man. They're the lowest rank of cowards."

Mr. Smyth, 51, and his wife, Bridie, 57, now care for their grandchildren, Kevin, 9, and Emma, 7. Mr. Smyth visits his daughter's grave three times a week. He keeps a stack of newspaper clippings on the murder because, one day, he says, the children will want to read of their mother's death.

"How can I explain to the children what happened?" he asks, standing over the grave as twilight falls.

He has tried to come to terms with a cease-fire that has come too late for his daughter. He yearns to see a united Ireland. But even more, he wants an Ireland that remains peaceful.

"The cease-fire means the shooting has stopped and Catholics don't have to be killed anymore," he says. "I don't see how pure hatred goes away.

"But if this peace goes through, I hope to God we never have violence like this again. Just take a family like mine. Ask people, 'Do you want what happened to the Smyths to happen to others?' "

A short distance from Belfast, the Rev. Gordon Gray of the First Lisburn Presbyterian Church has worked to bring Protestants and Catholics together. In the late 1980s, he held secret talks with Sinn Fein. Now, he can sit on panels with leaders from the other side.

"We're revisiting our losses," he says. "In a way, the cease-fire has heightened the sense of futility and outrage over these senseless deaths. Gain some distance from what was done in the name of a cause, and that enables you to see it for the horror it was."

The troubles touched Mr. Gray's life. His church was bombed twice. Each time, the mahogany pews and stained-glass windows were rebuilt. A window of reconciliation was created from the shards of glass.

What does peace mean?

Mr. Gray looks at the rebuilt facade of his church and says: "Peace looks like the possibility that our church might never actually be bombed again."

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