Divided loyalties, but east and west Belfast united in call for MLAs to get back to work
Students from Martin Luther King's old college in America found themselves in the middle of living history yesterday - as they visited east Belfast in the company of a Northern Irish peacemaker who welcomed the restoration of the power-sharing government just up the road at Stormont.
The Rev Harold Good, who oversaw the decommissioning of IRA weapons in 2005, took the group from Morehouse College in Atlanta to the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road, where ironically people from the mainly loyalist tradition were learning Irish, a language issue that had been one of the stumbling blocks to a political accord.
Even before Sinn Fein said yes to the deal yesterday afternoon, Mr Good had been upbeat as all around him in east Belfast the draft proposals - outlined on Thursday night by Secretary of State Julian Smith and the Tanaiste Simon Coveney - were all that people were talking about, as was also the case across the city on the Falls Road.
And even though the unionist and nationalist areas were divided about the finer details of the proposals, the unmistakable and overwhelming consensus was that people on both sides were weary and just wanted politicians to get back to work to sort out the crises facing Northern Ireland - particularly in the health service and in education.
The compliments weren't exactly flying on either road about the track record of the politicians in the three years since Stormont was suspended in the row which centred on Sinn Fein demands for an Irish language act, a move bitterly opposed by the DUP.
On the Newtownards Road, Crawford McIlveen said he knew a deal would be done because politicians didn't want a return to the polls in the wake of Westminster electoral setbacks for them.
He added: "They're tribal leaders looking after their own. There's not a statesman among them. We used to have a few, but they are long gone. It's all very bleak and depressing now.
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"I still think direct rule would be the best thing. People say that Boris Johnson and his ilk would be a disaster, but could they really be worse than nothing?"
Gary Allen said what he knew of the deal that had been put on the table didn't concern him, adding: "I just want to see the politicians getting on with their jobs. As for the Irish language I don't want to learn it but I have no objections to anyone speaking it, though I don't think anything should be forced on us like a Newtownards Road sign in Irish. There's no need for that."
Jean Neill didn't pull her punches. "The health service is falling apart so the politicians have to return to Stormont to do what they were voted in to do.
"They're like two children squabbling. The rows are so petty. If people want to learn Irish they can come to the Skainos centre to learn it.
"But the Secretary of State shouldn't have said he would help the nurses on condition that the politicians brought back the Executive."
Thomas Walker said he didn't regard the Irish language proposals as a threat to east Belfast.
"There are more important things than language. We needed the politicians to go back and sort out the hospitals.
"Enough was enough. They had to wise up and sort out both sides of the community," he said.
Ann Thompson was more cautious about what was on offer in the draft agreement.
Speaking after walking past a UVF mural which proclaimed that "the prevention of the erosion of our identity is now our priority" she said: "I think the Irish language proposals go too far. I know the DUP have backed the deal but I'm convinced it is much too much. And we lose again."
One man who didn't want to be named said he believed the politicians' support for the agreement represented three wasted years.
"I don't see a huge difference between these proposals and the ones from 2018," he added. "And you only have to look at the disasters and wars going on in the world to put our disagreements over things like languages into perspective."
Harold Good said he believed the draft agreement was "realistic" and would unlock the impasse to enable Northern Ireland to get back into responsible government.
He added: "People have been yearning in the elections and on the doorsteps for politicians to restore the executive and they wouldn't have easily forgiven if they hadn't gone for it. We should see the word 'compromise' as 'accommodation' where we make space for each other to the benefit of all of us."
Mr Good said his American student party comprised young people from hugely different backgrounds and colleges who had come to Northern Ireland to study the advances for peace here.
"I told them we had come a long way and it was important that we shouldn't lose it," said the former Methodist President.
The students later visited west Belfast, where the word on the streets echoed what was being said in the east.
Margaret Kelly said she would have "knocked the politicians' heads together" to come to an agreement.
She added: "We're in the 21st century yet there was still all this bickering and fighting. They needed to catch themselves on."
Joe Matthews, who described himself as an "old Sinn Feiner" said despite claims that the DUP would have a veto on Irish language regulations it was right to seal the deal.
"I think it's time we all moved on," he added.
Sean Byers, who's learning Irish, said claims that the language was part of a republican agenda were wrong.
He added: "I wouldn't be a Sinn Fein supporter, but there's a perception that the Irish language is a Sinn Fein issue. Howeverm that's not true.
"It's a broader based grassroots movement who are only looking for the same rights as the south of Ireland and across the water."
Mother and daughter Maureen and Karen McAlorum, who had been attending an appointment at the Royal Victoria Hospital, said they hoped a brighter future was now on the horizon.
"The politicians have been getting paid for years now and they've not been working.
"Yet the nurses couldn't get pay parity and they deserved it," said Karen.
Maureen said: "The current situation couldn't go on. So many people's lives were being ruined by the stalemate at Stormont. This was maybe the last chance to end it."
At the Grosvenor Road entrance to the Royal Victoria Hospital, health workers were back on the picket line yesterday and Conor McCarthy, the UNISON branch secretary, said his members had mixed feelings, adding: "They came here feeling positive as citizens about the prospect of a return to Stormont, which we all think is a good thing.
"But there was anger over what the Secretary of State said about pay parity only coming in the wake of the politicians agreeing to a deal.
"That made it clear that we, along with patients, were being used as leverage.
"Regardless of whether or not there was a political settlement, we should be paid the money."