Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Standing in silence for NI peace

Thousands attended the rally in Belfast city centre
Thousands attended the rally in Belfast city centre

By Fiona Murray
BBC News

They stood shoulder to shoulder in the cold. Young and old, men and women, some with babies in prams.

All had a common purpose - to show their anger at the murder of two soldiers and a policeman in three days.

Several thousand people stood in sombre silence at the front of Belfast City Hall, the biggest of several rallies across Northern Ireland.

The silence was broken by a lone piper, the strains of Abide with Me playing out into the crowd.

Organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, several speakers told of their abhorrence at the first killings of members of the security forces in more than a decade.

ICTU assistant general secretary Peter Bunting told those gathered: "The trade union movement stands together with all citizens in solidarity to prevent any derailment of the peace process."

That sentiment was shared by many who had either made the journey to Belfast or who joined the rally in their lunch hour.

Daniel Elliott hopes we don't want to go back to where we were 20 odd years ago

Student Daniel Elliott, 20, from Portadown, said people could not contemplate a return to violence.

"I feel that it's good that people from both sides of the community are coming together to say we want an end to this.

"We don't want to go back to where we were 20 odd years ago and have the army back on the streets, we just want a peaceful Northern Ireland for everybody."

There was a tangible sense of shock among the crowd at the recent killings.

Glasgow-born Cath Friel who moved to Northern Ireland eight years ago, said she was very angry.

"What I have seen over the period of time that I have lived in Northern Ireland is a real, positive change," she said.

"Belfast, and a whole of the north, has a smile on its face and what happened at the weekend and since then has taken the smile of it and upset very many people."

As flags and banners fluttered in the wind, the protest harked back to the rallies led by the Peace People in the 1970s.

Cath Friel said the killings had taken the smile of the face of Northern Ireland

A former member of the Peace People, Sara Duncan is now an Alliance councillor for Castlereagh.

She came to the city hall to unfurl a banner for peace, which had been stored away for more than 20 years.

"I can't believe I am bringing it out again," she said.

"I am really concerned that the killing of the soldiers and the policeman may lead to reaction and that we may be starting back into chaos again, but I really hope we won't because I am a mother now and a grandmother."

Dotted throughout the crowd were politicians from different persuasions, including Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein and Alliance leader David Ford.

As the rally came to an end, the crowd applauded and moved away - clearly moved by the sentiments voiced.

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