Winning the hearts, opening the minds

The referendum campaign has turned traditional divisions upside down in the North. Justine McCarthy has been to the Shankill Road to gauge the shift in the people's mindset

The referendum campaign has turned traditional divisions upside down in the North. Justine McCarthy has been to the Shankill Road to gauge the shift in the people's mindset

There is a carnival mood on the Shankill Road. Pop music fills the air; Now Is The Time To Say Goodbye, the anthemic valediction of Jimmy James and the Shondells. Its resonance rich with relevance.

Laughter billows out from a knot of young men in the uniform of bright T-shirts and dark tattoos. A colourful cluster of red-hand flags flutters on a street corner. A news reader's voice drifts out from a radio playing in the Baby Wear shop: ``With less than 14 hours left before polling begins...'' Old women in belted raincoats wait chattily for their buses at the stop across the street from the fish shop where 14 people died horrifically one Saturday morning in an IRA bomb explosion.

Back then, the faces of people on the Shankill were closed and tense, rigid with rage, grief and fealty to the twin doctrines of No Surrender and Not An Inch. Back then, any visitor to this street, the high street of the loyalist nation race, would have thought it impossible that, one day, it would buzz with a sense of hope inspired by the embrace of compromise. Back then, one drove a republic-registered car down the Shankill at one's peril and quickly learned the code of caution which dictated that southern accents and nationalist surnames were weapons of provocation.

Then, the loyalist paramilitaries plotted their attacks on nationalists in upstairs rooms on this street while murals were painted in their honour on its gable walls. That was the time when Ulster did not just say No but Never too, and Ian Paisley stood up for the Shankill and the bible belt of north Antrim.

Now there are posters in the shop windows showing a photograph of Big Ian mopping his eyes with a large white hankie. Over the picture is written the warning: `Don't Let Paisley Wipe Your Eye'.

Last Thursday, when there were just 14 hours to go before the referendum, Gary McMichael's Ulster Democratic Party had erected a makeshift campaign platform in front of the party's headquarters at the Bellevue Street corner. Its centrepiece was a giant cardboard cut-out of a fulminating Paisley, foam frothing from his lips and a miniature Bob McCartney peeping out of from his rumpled jacket pocket.

In fact, Paisley was scheduled to visit the Shankill this very morning but, without any reason being given, it has been erased from his itinerary.

On a piece of waste ground almost directly opposite the Paisley caricature, someone has painted the Shankill's least ornate graffiti across the width of an enormous boulder. `Well Done Trimble', it says. In the loyalist tradition, colour and artistry are essential ingredients of street furniture. The raw simplicity of the accolade to David Trimble aches with sincerity.

``Paisley has done more harm to this country than any republican's done,'' says one of the old women waiting for her bus opposite the site of Frizells fish shop. ``Mr Paisley split the Unionist Party and he got Mr Faulkner and Captain O'Neill brought out of Stormont. That's what he's done for us.''

By the middle of this week, various opinion polls were showing that unionist women constituted a large proportion of voters who still had not made up their minds. But on the Shankill on Thursday afternoon, every woman canvassed for her intentions said she would be voting Yes. One woman, when asked if she was perturbed by the apparent popularity of the Good Friday Agreement among nationalists, said: ``Look, I just want the trouble to stop. That's the bottom line. There's bad and good on both sides and I hope you'll be voting Yes in the Republic yourself.''

John White was one of the UDP's peace negotiators at the Stormont talks. He is also a former UFF prisoner, having served 14 years of two life sentences for the murder of SDLP Stormont Senator Paddy Wilson and his Protestant girlfriend, Irene Andrews, in 1973. The couple were stabbed to death in a frenzied attack.

Afterwards, former SDLP leader Gerry Fitt, who formally identified his colleague's multilated body, said: ``His hands were cut, fingers hanging off. He was obviously trying to cover the knife to stop being killed. He was nearly decapitated. This was a most brutal, sadistic murder.''

John White, who became known as `Captain Black`, has been out of jail now for a decade and he is his party's prisoner liaison officer. He believes that August is a realistic date to expect the first of the prisoners to be released on licence.

Today, manning the UDP campaign platform on the Shankill, John White would pass for a middle-management executive in his smart navy suit and round scholarly spectacles. His ad hoc poll on the street is showing 75% Yes, with the Undecideds outnumbering the Nos. The cliche ``cautiously optimistic'' suits his mood but his words are chillingly real.

``If there is political instability after the referendum and if something occurs, if something is done by the other side, I believe the loyalists will retaliate very quickly.''

Officially unemployed since Good Friday and living on his savings, like ``all of the UDP hierarchy'', he says his party will activate its Assembly election campaign ``straight away'' but he worries that most of the party's funds have been swallowed up by the Yes campaign.

He does not expect the UDP to merge with David Ervine's Progressive Unionist Party. ``We come from two different camps. There has always been an element of rivalry between the UFF and the UVF. But I respect David Trimble for having the courage to stay in the talks. It was difficult for me personally to sit at the negotiating table with republicans. The hatred was in my heart for the IRA. It's still there, to be honest.''

David Trimble's arrival in the hearts and minds of unionists and nationalists alike, north and south, has been a microcosm of Northern Ireland's inherent and multifarious contradictions. Despised by Paisley and McCartney's United Unionists for his willingness to work with Sinn Fein, he has grown in stature among nationalists. When a United Unionist was asked the other day if the Ulster Unionist Party leader would be welcome at Drumcree (the place of his birth as a leader) this summer, the reply was swift: ``He'd be lynched. The very thought!''

Yet, when the Rt Hon William David Trimble, former assistant dean at the Faculty of Law in Queens University, went to Coleraine University with Tony Blair on Wednesday night, his arm was nearly wrenched from its socket by ``a complete nationalist'' from ``a 100% nationalist town'' who just ``wanted to shake the great men's hand''.

Later, the student explained his enthusiasm. ``He's the first unionist politician to go out on a limb and take a risk, a huge risk. I admire him and applaud him and I'd be happy to shake his hand anytime.''

The complexity of the pan-Yes movement created by the referendum was evidenced by a dirty-tricks poster put up by unseen hands during the week at the Fortwilliam roundabout in north Belfast, a heavily Protestant-populated area. Printed in standard Sinn Fein green, it urged: `Vote Yes For A United Ireland. Our Day Has Come'. Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP claimed it had been put there by dissident loyalists. Northern Ireland's historical parity of dis-esteem has been turned on its head by the referendum campaign, the shift encapsulated on Tuesday night by John Hume and David Trimble shaking hands on the Waterfront stage.

In a brief break from campaigning at the Europa Hotel the following day, the SDLP leader, who shook hands with Brian Faulkner in an earlier chapter of the North's history, admitted: ``I found it very moving last night. I have to admit that I broke down and cried.''

Poignantly, the last time John Hume had publicly shed tears was at the funerals in his native Derry of the Halloween massacre victims in Greysteel when he was being widely rebuked for talking to Gerry Adams. Now it seems almost bizarre that Ulster Unionist Party voters could be asked to give their transfers to SDLP candidates in the Assembly elections in order to keep the DUP and the UK Unionists out.

If you were driving through Belfast this week you could not but have noticed the enormous No banner draped across the Orange Hall in Sandy Row. However, when Tony Blair thanked David Trimble on Wednesday night for his ``courage, tenacity and leadership'', two senior members of the Orange Order were among the audience applauding so energetically. As one observer pointed out: ``The Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys have said that they will vote against the Agreement but many of them would be members of the Institute of Directors and the Chamber of Commerce and they know which side their bread is buttered on.''

It was ironic too that at Sinn Fein's wind-up press conference in the Balmoral Hotel on Wednesday, Gerry Adams summed up the groundswing in unionism as ``the people who say No (having had) more practice than the people who are starting to say Yes.'' A short four hours earlier, David Trimble had hosted his daily media briefing at the UUP headquarters in Glengall Street. On the stairway leading to the conference room hung a framed memento of another election a decade ago. `Vote Unionist Anti-Agreement McCusker X', it said. In an informal conversation, afterwards, a party official complained: ``The No campaign is cohesive and effective. They can say No in 40 different languages.''

As the week wore on, as Richard Branson and William Hague and Tony Blair flew over and back and newspapers published broadly similar poll results, there was a sense on the city's streets that everyone here was wholeheartedly engaged in the referendum. In shops and cafes, overheard snatches of conversations were littered with all the trigger words, like decommissioning and prisoner releases, united Ireland and the Union. In Her Majesty's Stationery Office, the girl at the cash till confirmed that citizens were still dribbling through the door looking for copies of the Good Friday Agreement and the chief electoral officer revealed that he had been receiving a phenomenal level of inquiries about postal votes from New Zealand, San Francisco and South Africa.

Back on the Shankill Road on the eve of polling there were even signs that the war could, indeed, be over. On the gable wall nearest The Post Conflict Resettlement Group office, yet another combat-type mural was explained in a language marked by its use of the past tense. ``This mural,'' it said, ``is a memorial to the Volunteers of A Coy. 1st Batt who served so bravely through the years of conflict. Gone but not forgotten.''

Colin Huston, a 33-year-old freckle-faced preacher in tracksuit and runners could clearly see the mural from his seat in Oasis, a cafe housed by the Methodist church on the Shankill Road. For the past few weeks, he's been leafleting thousands of houses in Belfast with his Yes literature and driving back and forth across the city in his red runabout exhorting people to `Vote Yes For Jesus'.

What is remarkable about Colin is that he says he was `saved' after a spell in jail on a minor conviction, that his father served four years of an eight year sentence for armed robbery on behalf of the UDA and that he, Colin, frequently takes the train to Dublin so he can preach his gospel over a pizzeria in Tallaght.

``What Mr Paisley has to understand is that it says in the Bible that the government and kings are in the hands of God and God turns them whichever way he pleases,'' says the father-of-two who claims he was once stoned by loyalists. ``What Mr Paisley doesn't understand is that his time is up as a political leader. God is turning the hand.''

It may sound a little folksy and a tad evangelist but there is a metaphor in Christian history for the way David Trimble has set his own people on a new course in their history. It is to be found in the Paulian conversion on the road to Damascus. The difference is that the academic lawyer from Lurgan did it by embarking on an unapproved road; a high-risk manoeuvre in unionism's emotional geography.