A peaceful day in Belfast as Paris is a grief-stricken city

French stall owners Thomas Thizy and Anthony Fahy from Lyon during a minute's silence at St George's Market, Belfast
French stall owners Thomas Thizy and Anthony Fahy from Lyon during a minute's silence at St George's Market, Belfast

I paid one of my rare visits to Belfast this week to do some Christmas shopping and visit the Continental Market.

Though cold and a bit windswept, the city centre looked beautiful as the sun was out and the staff at the City Hall were working hard outside sorting out festive decorations to put up on the grand old building.

Such a peaceful, happy scene, filled with the exotic smells emanating from the market. The minute’s silence was over, it was back to business.

Yet, just an hour away by plane, the city of Paris was reeling from the IS attacks which had left 129 dead and dozens critically injured.

The grief stricken city was in lock-down. Not many of its citizens I suspect had Christmas shopping on their minds at that moment. The Sister and I decided to have a coffee and all around us, as we sipped our Americanos, people were talking about Paris.

There was empathy of course. We know what it’s like to have bombers and gunmen in our midst wreaking havoc. There was a time when I couldn’t risk bringing the children to Belfast to admire the Christmas decorations. The IRA had seen to that.

How safe were we from Islamic terrorists in downtown Belfast? We pondered the fact since republican terrorists are still in existence here deciding that Parisians would have to do as we did for years, get on with their lives and not give in to evil.

Two days later we learned that our two main political parties had struck a deal to get back to business at Stormont. Whether the tragedy in Paris hastened agreement between them is something we’ll probably never know. More to the point, would it stick, since all other parties had been left out of the frame on discussions?

Desperate situations require desperate measures and while this agreement could not remotely be regarded as democratic it is all we’ve got.

Did we want our run-up to Christmas spoiled by the possibility of our political institutions collapsing around our ears? If Cameron and Obama were happy with it why couldn’t the rest of us be happy too?

Coming up to Christmas surely we have other things on our minds other than politics? Democracy has been set aside – for the moment. All those shouting from the sidelines that the politicians should keep talking until they strike a deal was all very well. But did those on the outside realise that this deal was being put together without discussions with the other parties?

Is a deal –any deal – worth setting aside democracy for? Will that picture on the front of this newspaper on Wednesday of the First and Deputy First Ministers sitting on comfy leather chairs, chatting to each other, accompanied

by the headline Ourselves Alone make people feel, happy, sad or just plain sick? I suppose the next election results will tell the tale.

Meanwhile back in Paris President Hollande was having no truck with negotiations. He ordered his jets into the air to bomb Raqqa, the seat of ISIS, had his troops rounding up would-be terrorists holed up in a Parisian apartment block and demanded the return of border controls.

By comparison David Cameron left himself hoarse at Westminster pleading for the UK to send up planes to bomb Syria.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn gave the impression we should send the terrorists bunches of flowers instead. Hollande showed strength while the Brits showed weakness. It will take a lot more effort from the Brits to stop foreign terrorists bombing central London.

My day in Belfast showed a city at peace with itself. The talks have produced an agreement that for now will leave people comfortable to visit Belfast and our other cities this Christmas.

It has taken a long time to achieve this and if that News Letter front page picture of those two hardened politicians keeps us safe in the future we can live with that. I only ask why it has taken so long.