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EDITIONS
Friday, 2 August, 2002, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
The slow march of change
rally
Thousands joined the rally at Belfast City Hall

In Belfast, the voice of decency has been making itself heard again.

A huge sound system relayed the message from speaker after speaker, of the sense of weariness and disgust almost everyone in the province feels at the sectarian murders which persist, four years into the peace process.

For the second time this year the ordinary people of a city divided against itself have gathered in front of its imposing City Hall to call for an end to sectarian violence.

A similar protest in January drew 30,000 people

It is almost two weeks since loyalist paramilitaries shot a teenager called Gerard Lawlor who was walking home from a pub in north Belfast.

His killers probably did not know him, or anything about him. They guessed that he was a Catholic because he was wearing a Celtic football shirt, and that was enough to seal his fate.

Belfast City Council with the backing of the trades unions and the main churches called a protest rally.

Culture of violence

It says much about life in Northern Ireland that between the decision to stage the rally, and the rally itself, republican paramilitaries murdered a building worker - a Protestant as it happens - who was helping to refurbish a Territorial Army medical training centre.

We tend to bill such outpourings of popular sentiment as signs of hope, somehow implying that they represent a change in the popular mood.

But one of the underlying truths of the Troubles is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland have always opposed sectarian violence.

It is just that they have inherited a culture of political violence which will take years, if not decades to change.

And of course, paramilitary organisations have no culture of listening to ordinary people.

Alex Maskey
Alex Maskey took centre stage

They have the arrogance of all vanguard movements, fuelled by the belief that what they do is legitimate, however squalid it may look to the rest of us.

Friday's demonstration was smaller than the similar protest which followed the murder in January of a young Catholic postman, Danny McColgan.

But it was a reminder that most people in the province do not agree with that view.

The involvement this time around of politicians perhaps made it harder for some people to support this rally.

Political divisions

Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein is currently serving as Lord Mayor of Belfast and played a leading role on stage throughout the rally.

Other senior members of the party applauded the speech of a trades unionist who called for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations.

Many Protestants would wince at that, seeing Sinn Fein and the IRA as two sides of the same coin, and believing that the IRA has the blood from its share of sectarian murders.

protestors
A one-minute silence marked the protest's start

But Sinn Fein would see no contradiction, since it views the IRA as having more legitimacy in Northern Ireland than the British Army, and believes its campaign to have been perfectly morally defensible.

In other words, as soon as Northern Ireland's political leaders involve themselves in such a grass-roots movement, it changes that movement, and divisions begin to emerge.

The hardline unionists of the DUP registered their disapproval of Mr Maskey's role, by declining to turn up.

Those political divisions though are merely among the most obvious symptoms of how profoundly sectarianism divides Northern Ireland.

This is, after all, a society in which Catholics and Protestants are educated separately, often live in different areas, and even follow different sports.

Those divisions are the breeding ground for sectarianism which at the extreme fringes of society produce murderous violence.

Change has started, but it is a slow process.


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02 Aug 02 | N Ireland
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