Wary Protestants and Catholics not ready to embrace Northern Ireland breakthrough

Thursday, October 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The IRA has begun disarming, the British government is tearing down its watchtowers, but among Catholics and Protestants there is a lingering reluctance to believe that peace has been secured.

``I know when I first heard the news about the IRA, I was excited,'' said Diane Lowry, a 22-year-old Protestant whose father is a retired Belfast policeman.

``But then my dad sitting on the sofa started talking and he got cynical so quick _ 'They only gave up a few rusty old guns,' things like that _ and I suppose my own niggling doubts started building up too,'' she said Thursday. ``It's very hard to stay hopeful because there's so little trust.''

When the Irish Republican Army announced Tuesday it had begun to get rid of its weapons, the outlawed group said it acted in part ``to persuade others of our genuine intentions.''

In response to the IRA move, Britain began tearing down two hilltop forts that overlook the overwhelmingly Catholic border region of South Armagh.

While the army and police closed dozens of installations in response to the IRA cease-fire in 1997, the army had resisted shutting any of the more than a dozen surveillance posts, which have been used to snoop with cameras and microphones on South Armagh and across the nearby border into the Republic of Ireland.

On Thursday, an army helicopter took journalists to see engineers at work with drills and grinders tearing away armor plating from one wind-swept outpost overlooking the IRA power base of Camlough.

Engineers were also starting to take apart a military observation tower that dominates the center of nearby Newtownhamilton, the only town in South Armagh with a significant British Protestant minority.

While Protestants expressed fears the local IRA would take advantage of reduced security, Roman Catholic leaders said the cutback was meaningless. They noted the main high-walled base and another smaller watchtower would remain.

``That tower's been 17 years on the skyline. Its destruction is not nearly enough,'' said Ita Gibney, who leads the Newtownhamilton Community Association.

``People would want the British army out of here completely, not redecorating their base,'' she said. ``In recent weeks, they've actually increased foot patrols in the town. And they're still blocking off one of the main roads leading from the town square. The traffic congestion is terrible.''

John O'Neill, a 26-year-old Catholic, said the IRA disarmament move was ``a stunt'' that wouldn't change the reality of deteriorating Protestant-Catholic relations in many areas, particularly north Belfast where his girlfriend lives.

``The fact is the IRA was in a bit of a panic because most of their revenue comes from Americans, and after the attack on the Twin Towers last month, people there were feeling less willing or able to glorify what the IRA does,'' O'Neill said. ``So they had to decommission a few weapons for now, but it's a red herring. They'll never say the war's over.''

In his girlfriend's Newington Street neighborhood, where support for the IRA is strong, it's anything but peaceful. In rioting last weekend, a man was shot in the chest and two girls aged 8 and 11 were cut by a homemade grenade thrown from the neighboring Protestant district.

``The street lights are all switched off or smashed, so it's pitch-dark, and both sides are throwing stones at each other,'' O'Neill said.

Many Catholics and Protestants are friends and co-workers, but they usually keep the peace by not discussing their political differences. This week's been no different.

``What the IRA's done isn't a big deal. It's probably just a load of old guns they couldn't find bullets for anymore, but they're keeping plenty more of their best gear stashed away,'' said Scott McNeill, an east Belfast Protestant, standing beside his friend Stephen Sherry, a Catholic from the Irish Republic border county of Monaghan. Both are 19 and studying architecture.

``I'd feel a bit hopeful about what's going on,'' said Sherry, who quickly took in his friend's disapproving grimace. ``Well, maybe not. Let's not talk politics!''