Die-hards are itching for a fight but are tiny in number

Thumb_bill-neely

Thirty years ago I was a junior radio reporter in Northern Ireland when news came through of another explosion.

When I got to the rubble of Ballykelly, the remains of 17 people were being pulled from what was left of a pub.

The Droppin Well in Ballykelly, Northern Ireland after the attack in 1982
The Droppin Well in Ballykelly, Northern Ireland after the attack in 1982 Credit: Press Association

They'd been dancing to a love song when a bomb blew up and brought down the roof on top of them.

Eleven were soldiers, six civilians, all enjoying an innocent night out.

The wreckage inside the pub in Ballykelly following the bomb blast
The wreckage inside the pub in Ballykelly following the bomb blast Credit: Press Association

It was a dark, cold night and days later - when the funerals were over - I cried like a baby at the horror and sheer brutality of it all.

Those were terrible days and the tears, bombs and killings seemed never-ending.

Northern Ireland lived through 30 years of violence - the Troubles started when I was ten.

For me, soldiers with guns on the street, shots echoing across the city and the fear of murder were part of everyday life.

After the violent deaths of nearly 4,000 people, an agreement swept away the 30 years war.

The province's people have built bridges of trust and compromise that were unthinkable a generation or two ago. The sight of a former leader of the IRA and the bulldog of Protestant power laughing together at the dawn of a new era made my jaw drop.

But it was real - Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley really were enjoying the peace dividend and a laugh together. McGuinness really did shake the hand of the Queen, whose cousin Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA.

The Queen shaking hands in June with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
The Queen shaking hands in June with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness Credit: Press Association

Are all the problems of the past over? No. Die-hards on both sides are itching for a fight, but are tiny in number. Hardcore Republicans just can't accept that the long war is over and that their old leaders talk to British ministers and a monarch.

There are Loyalists who feel every agreement of the past decade has brought compromise from them and none from their political enemies. The sight of the Union flag being lowered from Belfast's City Hall was a red, white and blue rag to a bull.

Loyalist protestors carrying Union flags clash with police outside the City Hall in Belfast
Loyalist protestors carrying Union flags clash with police outside the City Hall in Belfast Credit: Press Association

So do protests and punchups with the police mean the end of peace? No.

MI5 warns there are Republican dissidents ready to resume a bombing campaign. Does this really mean a new war? No. The dissidents are few in number, riddled with informers, watched by intelligence and totally unsupported by the vast majority of Catholics sick and tired of violence.

Today's Northern Ireland has its problems - economic above all.

It also must live with the legacy of decades of trouble. I went to school in north Belfast - the sectarian cockpit of the Troubles. Half a dozen boys I knew (and I mean teenage boys) were singled out and murdered there for no other reason than their religion.

It is, even today, a patchwork of hardline strongholds on both sides - but it is also a place where people do 5km park runs together every Saturday. Where people on both sides who love their sport celebrate Northern Ireland's champions - golf's Rory McIlroy, Graham McDowell and Darren Clarke to name a few.

In north Belfast I've met community leaders from both sides who took part in the killings and now talk to old enemies almost daily, healing old wounds, helping victims, hoping for a better life.

For these men, the occasional bursts of trouble - a riot on a hot August night, a bomb that partly exploded - are the spasms of a dying cause, not the start of a new decade of civil strife.

No one wants that.

Bill Neely's article originally appeared in The Sun newspaper.