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In Belfast, Thousands Rally for the Peace They Thought Was Theirs

February 12, 1996

BELFAST (AP) _ The last time thousands flocked to graceful City Hall square, they braved a biting cold to hear President Clinton say there was no turning back to violence.

Barely two months later, a crowd assembled in unseasonable sunshine Monday to mourn the passing of their brief glimpse of peace.

``I was sitting on me own, the TV off,″ Maria McShane told the crowd. ``Me sister rang me: `Did you hear the news?′ I cried and cried.″

Her voice broke, and throughout the crowd, others wiped tears away.

The rally was called by Women Together, an organization that unites Protestant and Catholic women who lost loved ones to the political and sectarian violence from 1969 to 1994, after an Irish Republican Army bomb blast London on Friday killed two and shattered the hopes born in 17 months of cease-fire.

The cease-fire called by Catholic and Protestant gunmen in late 1994 had shifted the role of peace groups such as Women Together: instead of consoling the bereaved, they had time to discuss and plan social reforms.

``It was a tantalizing prelude to a lasting peace,″ Women Together leader Nilla Noblet told an applauding crowd of around 4,000, many of whom had come from across the province.

After a minute’s silence for the two victims of the London blast _ newspaper vendors Inan Ul-Haq Bashir, 29, and John Jefferies, 31 _ the crowd waved cardboard doves in the air.

Kathryn Curran, a 17-year-old Catholic from south Belfast, came with her best friend Julie Hanna, a Protestant _ a relationship that would have been difficult to maintain 18 months ago.

``Peace was going out at nights, it meant your mum doesn’t worry as much,″ said Curran.

Speakers representing peace groups, the clergy and trade unions, were careful to balance their remarks: They urged the gunmen to lay down arms and the politicians to start talking.

``Intransigence is a breeding ground for violence,″ Noblet said. ``Compromise is the path to peace, for the sake of our children.″

Catholic politicians have laid some of the blame on British Prime Minister John Major for refusing to hold talks with the IRA-aligned Sinn Fein party until the IRA starts disarming.

But for many of those in the crowd, the blame lay more or less squarely on the shoulders of the IRA.

``On a practical level, yes, they should start talking,″ said Roshin Powers. ``But putting the guns away is the best idea.″

Powers recalled the exhilaration when tens of thousands packed the square as President Clinton lit the Christmas tree on Nov. 30, and heard him say ``there was no going back to violence.″

``It was the best thing that happened to us,″ she said.

Mrs. McShane, a Catholic from Keady, near the border with Ireland, agreed that the IRA should take the brunt of the blame for Friday’s blast.

``It’s mainly the people who carry the guns,″ she said in an interview.

In 1976, Mrs. McShane lost her left eye when a car bomb exploded outside a bar in Keady. She was three months pregnant with her first child, Gavin. He was unaffected and went on to become an all-Ireland champ in hurling _ a form of field hockey.

In May, 1994, months before the cease-fire, he was skipping school and playing a game in a video arcade in Armagh when he was shot to death by Protestant ``loyalist″ gunmen on a random revenge mission.

Mrs. McShane visited her son’s grave over the weekend and prayed for peace _ which she said is not about politics.

``It’s rearing my two other children without bitterness,″ she said.

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