I MOVED to Belfast in June 1994, a few weeks after mother-of two Theresa Clinton had been killed in her living room, in her nightdress as she was getting ready for bed, by the UDA.

A few days after the UVF in South Down had killed six men watching the World Cup in a bar in Loughinisland.

A few weeks after the IRA had killed 19-year-old Nigel Smith as he worked in Anderson and McAuley.

Mother-of-two Caroline Mooreland was to be killed by the IRA, a few weeks after I moved up.

 

It was a time when we knew we were moving inch by inch towards peace, but were locked in conflict.

My move was eight years after a November rally in the Ulster Hall when Ulster Resistance was launched. The invitation-only, men-only event was a loyalist “response” to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. All tape recorders and cameras were ordered switched off. It was a deliberately inciting event with the DUP hierarchy rallying the thousands present to be “ready for the worst” and pledging to give “political cover” to whatever came next.

Within months, members of Ulster Resistance were importing weapons and distributing military and police weapons to paramilitary loyalism with the full knowledge, oversight and direction of the British Army, British security service and RUC Special Branch.

Theresa Clinton was killed with those weapons. The men in Loughinisland were killed with those weapons. Hundreds upon hundreds were to die following that November rally in the Ulster Hall, when men donned red berets and pledged all kinds for “God and Ulster”.

This week the almost miraculous changes will be heralded in a different November meeting in Belfast’s Ulster Hall as men, women and children pledge peace, prosperity and a united future gather. In a live-streamed, fully recorded event, Belfast, Ulster and Ireland will hear from Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters as they contribute to planning for a new constitutional dispensation, where no-one will be threatened by the use of force, but peace and peaceful dialogue, and democracy itself will be fostered and protected.

None of us can be blind to the past as we plan for a New Ireland and new political arrangements. We will learn from our past to ensure that the human rights that marked the foundation and perpetuation of the northern state are never repeated and all citizens, irrespective of their constitutional allegiances are protected. That is not to underestimate the challenges. Of course there are many. Which is why, six years since the Brexit vote in England threw all constitutional questions out on to the table, it is surely to God time to plan, to convene formally, to discuss the contentions and plan the possibilities in democratic safety.

There are currently some yahoos, with their paid agents and handlers, at their lark. There are poundshop cheerleaders talking about “raising Carson’s army” and saying ceasefires cannot hold. There are psychopathic criminals wedded to force and power. They all wish to disrupt a reasonable and considered debate because peace threatens their little locus of influence. Their days are over. There is no doubting that the people, the vast majority from all communities, old and new, choose peace, choose dialogue and together choose the future.