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A year later, hope glimpsed in Ulster

Beneath a lamppost on Belfast's Shankill Road, a rain-slick slab of stone quotes the Gospel according to Luke: "To give light to them that sit in darkness and, in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

The memorial is to nine Shan-kill Protestants who, on Saturday afternoon one year ago, were blown apart or crushed beneath the rubble of an IRA bomb. It is a poignant reminder of a province until recently trapped in a cycle of fear and vengeance _ and a marker, too, for the remarkable push for peace since then.

"What we have done is move this process further than anyone believed possible 12 months ago. There is a spirit of hope out there right across Northern Ireland," Prime Minister John Major said Saturday.

Back-to-back truces by the Irish Republican Army and Protestant-based loyalist gunmen, responsible for most of the nearly 3,200 deaths in Northern Ireland since 1969, would have been unthinkable last October.

At the time the two camps were trying to decapitate each other, with the loyalist Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force assassinating Catholics in a war against IRA supporters.

The IRA's north Belfast unit hoped to destroy the Shankill headquarters of the outlawed UDA on Oct. 23, 1993, but the bomb detonated early in Frizzell's fish shop downstairs, killing an IRA man along with the innocents.

Within the week, loyalists shot dead a dozen Catholics doing their jobs or enjoying a night out: garbage collectors, teenagers watching TV, a fast-food deliveryman.

The revenge slayings culminated in a UDA machine-gun massacre of rural pubgoers on Halloween eve. The gunmen shouted "Trick or treat!" before opening fire.

That spasm of killings _ the worst since the mid-1970s _ seemed to poison everything. Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political ally Sinn Fein, carried the coffin of the slain bomber, stoking Protestant fury.

Yet Britain is now about to talk to Adams, extremists on both sides are holding their fire, and the British troops who patrol Belfast are more relaxed than ever.

On Friday, Major said his government would hold talks soon with Sinn Fein. He has toured Northern Ireland attracting smiles and warm handshakes from both sides of the political-religious divide.

"I've always been an optimist and in the past I've always been wrong," said Paul Arthur, a Protestant politics lecturer at the University of Ulster.

"But when both sets of paramilitaries say "Right, violence is off,' you have to be optimistic," Arthur said. "The anniversary of the Shankill bomb brings home how much the situation has changed."

Separated from Catholic parts of west Belfast by a 2-story-high "peace line" of walls, the Shankill is a community of open wounds where few trust IRA motives or Sinn Fein peace appeals.

"In Shankill households this weekend people are struggling with their memories. . . . At the end of it people hopefully will come away believing that peace is possible," said Mina Wardle, who counsels women traumatized by violence and domestic conflict.

Like a tooth ripped from a mouth, only a boarded-up gap and a wreath of flowers mark where the IRA bomb leveled Frizzell's.

"Never again should atrocities like that happen," said Charlie Butler, a Shankill cabbie who helped pull victims from the rubble.

Other searchers had come across three corpses mauled beyond easy recognition. It was Butler who saw the clothing and realized the victims were his niece Evelyn, her husband Michael and their 7-year-old daughter Michelle.

Evelyn's father, Bobby Baird, 55, who is now caring for their two surviving children, said: "The walls between us should come down. But I'll never forgive them'ns who planted the bomb 'til the day breath leaves me."