Northern Ireland at Peace

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Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe has been covering events in Northern Ireland for 20 years. He offers his reflections on the announcement Thursday by the Irish Republican Army that it will give up its arms and forego violence.


Over the last 20 years, Kevin Cullen spent a lot of time in Belfast, reporting for The Boston Globe on Northern Ireland and its people. When he first arrived there, `the Troubles' were in full swing, and he covered a lot of funerals. Kevin has appeared on this show many times over the years to assess the violence and the halting moves toward peace between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists. This past Friday, the day after the IRA issued a statement renouncing violence, Kevin went for a walk in Belfast, and he sent this impression.


I walked up to Bombay Street off the Springfield Road in West Belfast. Thirty-six years ago, in August 1969, Rita Canavan(ph) had five kids and was pregnant with a sixth when Protestant loyalists burned her out. They burned out all the Catholics in the neighborhood, and the cops did nothing to stop it. The provisional IRA rose from the ashes on Bombay Street.

Rita Canavan is still there. Rita's 79 now and she just had some gall stones out, but she was in great form, saying she had complete confidence that the IRA were doing the right thing and that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commanders who now lead Sinn Fein, were brilliant and that Sinn Fein would be running the country before long. Still, from the kitchen, Rita's daughter, Patsy, said she hopes the provosts don't give up all their guns as they promised. Loyalists still lurk behind a 40-foot wall of concrete, corrugated steel and wire mesh, but that's still too close for the people on Bombay Street.

I walked through the peace line, the walls that still separate Catholic nationalist neighborhoods from Protestant Unionist ones onto the staunchly loyalist Shankill Road. In front of the store that used to be Frizellis fish shop, where nine Protestants were killed by an IRA bomb in 1993, an old woman named Sally Campbell berated me for even asking whether she thought the IRA was serious about ending its war. Sally knew Fred Frizellis the fish monger who died in the blast with his daughter, Sharon. Sally doesn't believe anything the IRA says. `You wouldn't be trusting those boys,' Sally said.

On the Falls Road, the main thoroughfare in Catholic West Belfast, not surprisingly people were more willing to give the IRA the benefit of the doubt. In shop windows, posters advertise a play written by Danny Morrison, a former IRA man and Sinn Fein figure. Danny did a stretch in prison in the 1990s after the cops caught him interrogating a suspected informer. One disgruntled IRA man told me Danny was the IRA's best counterintelligence officer or, as he put it, Danny was the last face you saw before they put the hood over your head. Since he got out of prison, though, Danny's become a successful writer, a novelist and now a playwright. His books are pretty good; his play got rave reviews in London.

Things change. they have red double-decker buses here now that give tours of the neighborhoods where so many people died in the Troubles. On Friday, one of the tour buses was stopped near the Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road. When I came out of the building, a bunch of tourists leaped from their seats and started taking photographs of me. They probably thought I was a former IRA prisoner. Truth is I was probably one of the few guys my age in that area that wasn't once a prisoner.

After the bus pulled away, a green British army Land Rover drove by. They used to be the signature symbol of the conflict, British squatties with their heads sticking out of the top, peering down the scopes of their rifles at passersby. But the squatties are gone. A local entrepreneur bought some of the army vehicles, including an armor-plated Sarason(ph) and rents them out. Not that long ago, young men in West Belfast would have been plotting how to attack one of these things; now they rent them out for bachelor parties.

Like everything else on the island of Ireland, the Troubles have become something of a commodity. Maybe that's not such a bad thing for Rita Canavan, Sally Campbell and even me. It sure beats covering funerals.

HANSEN: Kevin Cullen is a reporter for The Boston Globe.

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