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An admonition against cynicism

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MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD son started school this week. It was not an occasion for the nation to pause — thank God — even if it was an event of great moment for his tearful Mum, Dad and grandparents.

What prompted me to give thanks for his anonymity was the photo of a little yellow car in the wreckage of one of the buses blown apart by suicide bombers in Israel on Tuesday. Its owner, a boy just a year younger than mine, had been murdered in a war beyond his comprehension and in which he had had no part. He had been due to start at kindergarten the next day.

There is a gruesome counterpoint of life as we see it on our news bulletins and as we experience it in our everyday encounters. That was brought home by a different piece of journalism from Dennis Murray on the BBC news this week.

It was a report from Northern Ireland about the return to normality in the ten years since the IRA ceasefire in August 1994. Ulster has not been absent from our screens in the interval — and the reports have not much contradicted the stereotypes of conflict we have come to expect.

The years since the ceasefire have been far from perfect. Paramilitary violence persists. Sectarian tensions are wreaking a kind of ethnic cleansing in which working-class communities are now virtually segregated on religious lines. Last week, the remaining Protestant families in the small north-Belfast housing estate of Torrens moved out after years of peace-line disorder. The memory is still vivid of another "back-to- school" episode, as terrified Roman Catholic children ran a gauntlet of venom to get to Holy Cross School three years ago.

But Dennis Murray’s report painted a different picture. It was of burned-out businesses rebuilt; émigrés returning; new breweries and restaurants; the dull prosperity of a province that is quietly thriving.

It was an admonition against cynicism. That does not mean we do not exercise scepticism when Sinn Fein leaders talk about its being time to "get rid of the IRA" to prevent Unionists’ using its existence as an excuse to avoid sharing power with Republicans; or when we hear that a "deal of all deals" is being secretly negotiated between the two most extreme parties — the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein — that have emerged as the largest parties.

Yet we have to keep in mind that even talk of negotiations between the terrorist godfathers and bigoted demagogues would once have been dismissed as impossible. What it is easy to miss, as the news trundles out occasional reports of the continuing ritualised confrontations, is that policemen who once cowered in armoured cars are now on the streets. The province’s jails are now almost empty.

The grim arithmetic of terror tells its own story. In Israel, that may be a bleak one. The Israeli state has quietly killed 400 Palestinians in the six-month interval since the last suicide-bomb outrage. But in Ireland, the figures tell a story of some optimism. The number of killings in the decade since the IRA ceasefire is down to one fifth of the total for the ten previous years. Deaths are about one a month, compared with two a week before the ceasefire, and most are in internecine "loyalist" feuds linked to racketeering and drugs.

Each death is, of course, a tragedy, which shatters the lives of those close to the victim. But the hope and the euphoria of that August day in 1994 have been proved not to be vain. The people of Northern Ireland are, at last, able to exercise the right to be ordinary. They can look forward to the day when they do not make the news at all.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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