Thousands gather in Belfast and Derry to plead for peace


THEY managed to keep the silence for about five minutes. Apart, that is, from the naturally, garrulous, some children, and a visiting broadcast journalist who took advantage of the near quiet to do a piece to camera.

But most of the estimated 15,000 demonstrators at Belfast City Hall kept the peace as they held up cardboard cut out white doves, or placards with messages like "we want peace". A few Ulster Democratic Party members carried placards saying "Stop IRA peace killers". They stood near about 20 Sinn Fein members with their posters stating "Make Peace Work - Negotiate Now".

Church bells were supposed to ring for the first 10 minutes of the "mother of all peace rallies", whose slogan was "Ceasefire Now give us back our peace". But at the Belfast venue, one of 11 in Northern Ireland, a single distant bell tolled the hour as the crowds strolled and drove into the city centre.

One man heading in for the demonstration said: "I haven't seen as many people since President Clinton's visit. What a night of optimism that was."

The crowd spread from behind the gates of the city hall, across Donegall Square and down Donegall Place, the shopping street. People gathered, chatted and waited. There were no platforms, no speeches. A voice called for silence and almost five minutes of quiet followed as people held up their placards.

One of them, Drew McLean, a veterinary inspector, held up a wooden two shamrocked sign with the words "SHAMAT - Shake Hands and Make Another Truce".

And then instead of the planned 10 minutes of church bells the chanting began: first it was "Ceasefire now - Give Us Back Our Peace" repeated over and over, followed by some singing: "all we are saying is give peace a chance".

The demonstrators then began a slow clap which turned into sustained applause, cheering and whistling.

As the crowd thinned a number of women from the nationalist Andersonstown area of the city noticed the UDP leader Gary McMichael and went over to him.

One of them, Madge McGoldrick, said: "We all reared our children during the Troubles. They are bringing up their children now and we don't want our grandchildren to be reared with the Troubles."

The organisers in the North said the demonstrations were an overwhelming success. One of the them, television presenter Gordon Burns, said: "The people have spoken. People have turned out in their tens of thousands, Protestant, Catholic, Unionist, Nationalist, to say they want peace."

In Derry, thousands of people attended one of the city's largest peace rallies in many years at Guildhall Square in the city centre.

The organisers, members of Derry's Cross Community Peace and Reconciliation Centre, distributed paper white doves of peace and most of those present signed a book of peace.

With thousands of people in the Square, overlooked by hundreds on the city walls, the church bells chimed in unison at 3 p.m. As silence descended people held up their white doves for 10 minutes.