Keeping track of the Peace Train

TWENTY years ago this week, an organisation called The Peace Train was set up in response to the IRA's repeated bombing of the Belfast-Dublin railway line.

The first Peace Train left Belfast on Saturday, October 28, 1989 in a symbolic gesture of protest against the attacks on the route, which was and remains key to the economic infrastructure of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Two thousand people from all over the island of Ireland took part and delivered a resoundingly clear message of cross-border opposition to the IRA.

Church leaders of all denominations and politicians from all constitutional strands pledged their support.

Founded by the influential Belfast writer and broadcaster Sam McAughtry - who headed the movement in the North - and the Rev Chris Hudson, who gave a lead in the Republic, the group organised various demonstrations until the ceasefires of 1994.

From the outset it sparked controversy, with republicans complaining that the Peace Train unfairly stigmatised the IRA rather than demonstrating against all paramilitary activity.

The first Peace Train did not complete its journey without incident; a stone-throwing youth broke a window and the train was delayed by yet another bomb scare on the line.

Mr McAughtry was chairman of the Ulster component of the Peace Train lobby. An incisive and unapologetic commentator, he said he was initially motivated by personal frustration.

"I travelled up and down between Dublin and Belfast for so many years when I worked for the Irish Times," he explained.

"The IRA said they wanted to be treated as a legitimate army - then I thought they should have heeded a few military points.

"The actions they were carrying out on the line were only holding down a few soldiers - what was the point in that?

"If they wanted to interfere with the transfer of goods, that wasn't thought through either - they could just transport the goods by truck.

"It just didn't make any sense to me at all that this line was a target."

Recalling the inaugural journey, Mr McAughtry said: "The Lord Mayor of Dublin met us when the Peace Train came in to Connolly Station and the place was packed. He presented me with a book about Dublin and I promptly gave him a book about Belfast."

Mr Hudson, who was awarded an MBE for his part in the Peace Train campaign, also negotiated with the UVF to secure their ceasefire and, more recently, decommissioning.

He remains a staunch opponent of IRA activity. "The Peace Train gave people a focused outlet to protest against the IRA," he said.

"Some people were angered by the Peace Train because they said we demonised republicans.

"Sinn Fein accused me of just being pro-British. They wanted to know why we weren't protesting against the British Army and the RUC.

"I did not agree that paramilitaries should be put in the same camp as the security forces," said Mr Hudson.

Both men will be joined by former secretary Chris McGimpsey and conflict resolution consultant Robin Wilson to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Peace Train on Thursday. Each will speak on the group's contribution to what it is hoped will be a lasting peace.

Peace Train: 20 Years On will be held at Central Hall, Rosemary Street, Belfast, on October 29 at 7.30pm.