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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Belfast Bars, Peace Seems Distant

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In the gray winter drizzle, the whitewashed slogans on the dark stone walls along West Belfast's Falls Road stand out: "Support the Peace Process" and "Back the Peace Initiative."

The upbeat messages in this Roman Catholic area refer to the Dec. 15 Downing Street Declaration signed by British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in hopes of finding a way to end 25 years of violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, strife that has claimed 3,100 lives.

But despite the initiative, violence associated with the republican-Unionist clash continues in the province: Thursday a Catholic man was murdered in Belfast, while in Londonderry a bomb exploded and one man was injured.

Predictably, the mood in the fortress-like bars in The Falls is not optimistic. Despite their expressed desire for peace, people here sense deeply the chasm that separates Protestant Unionists from Catholic republicans in this violence-prone, British-ruled corner of the world.

"I don't see how it's going to work," said an unemployed lather in a workingmen's club. "The 'Prods' won't give us anything. It's all religious. That's the way it is. They like killing Catholics.

"If I went to the Shankill for a pint, I could be shot dead," he added, referring to the mostly Protestant Shankill Road separated from its Falls neighbor by a fence as daunting as the Berlin Wall.

There, next to a building blown up by the IRA in an October attack, is another pub, spartan and protected by a security barrier. Its patrons are equally glum.

"Outsiders don't seem to realize that we Protestants aren't Irish," said one customer. "We're British and we want to remain British, not Irish. We've been here for 400 years. We're going to stay."

What was considered historic and hopeful about the December accord was that for the first time, London and Dublin cooperated closely in offering the IRA a place at a peace table.

However, with time the pact appears as an effort to square the Ulster circle by offering republicans enough to bring them to the table without outraging their equally militant Unionist counterparts.

The critical sentence in the document reads: "The British government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and currently given, North and South."

This, the British claim, protects the Protestant Unionists' majority rights in Northern Ireland, because any change could only come with their consent.

"If this is the case," said one observer, "there doesn't then seem to be much in it for the IRA -- which has been fighting for years for a united Ireland."

Gerry Adams, head of the IRA's political wing, lately stated this position: "Democracy demands that Britain recognizes the right of the Irish people to determine our own future." He refers to a vote in which Ulster Protestants would have a minority voice; Northern Ireland would cease to exist as a separate political entity.