Troubles in mind

The sectarian conflict between Northern Ireland's Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists is a state of mind as well as a state of civil unrest — August 1994

By David Wilson

A British Army soldier stands in front of a burning barricade during The Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in August 1976. Photo by Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Editor's note: One hundred years ago this month, a band of former British soldiers, Irish language enthusiasts and poets launched the first major armed uprising against the British empire in the 20th century. What became known as the Easter Rising was the first skirmish in a war of independence that resulted in the Irish Free State in 1922 and, eventually, the formal declaration of an Irish Republic in 1949. The revolt also planted the seeds of political discord in Northern Ireland, where troubles remained for the rest of the century. The Observer commemorates the anniversary of the Easter Rising by republishing this story from August 1994.

In this place, stories hang in the air like the smoke from peat fires on a dank spring evening — stories of sorrow, stories of rage, stories that follow you into your private corners.

Everyone knows them. Everyone tells them. Everyone is part of them. John Whiteside remembers the fellow worker, an army reservist, blown up by a car bomb. A wife and kids left behind.

Rev. Jim McCormick tells of the parishioner who was assassinated — car bomb again — because he sold some bricks to the police to repair a bomb-damaged station.

Newspaper editor Richard Montgomery recalls the day a grief-stricken 20-year old woman brought in a love-letter to her murdered fiancé. A week later, she was dead by her own hand, and Montgomery was writing about her funeral.

Jean Kelly remembers the man killed beneath the Celtic cross down the road from her home. Ken Stewart tells of the 800-lb. bomb that went off across the square from his flat. Father Denis Faul grimly talks about how many times he’s had to tell mothers that sons have been ambushed or were starving themselves to death in prison.

Here, in the County Tyrone town of Dungannon, and throughout Northern Ireland, stories have power. They shape identities, determine the course of lives, sow seeds of stories yet untold. They are part of a tragic, insatiable anthology called the Troubles.

The Troubles are a state of mind as well as a state of civil unrest, bequeathed from one generation to the next and hardened with each telling. The Troubles are a force bigger than other people, and so they sigh, “That’s just the way it is here.”

I have a story. Twenty-five years ago while on vacation in the British Isles, my family showed up unannounced on the doorstep of my father’s aunt in Dungannon. After figuring out who we were, she beckoned all of us to come inside. In we traipsed, my mother bringing up the rear. As mom crossed the threshold into the house, my father’s aunt, all four-foot-ten of her blocked the way and asked warily, “You wouldn’t be Roman Catholic, would you?

That was 1969, just as the most recent chapter of the Troubles was beginning to unfold. My father’s aunt is long gone, but I’ve thought of that incident many times as I’ve followed events in Northern Ireland over the years. If religious hostility could loom as a barrier between kin a quarter-century ago, how insurmountable must it now be, 3,200 dead and 40,000 injured later?

I’ve come back to Dungannon to find out.

To get an idea of the forces that dominate life in this town of 12,000, about an hour’s drive west of Belfast, you only have to scan the features that dominate the city’s skyline: St. Anne’s Church (Protestant) on one hill, St. Patrick’s Church (Roman Catholic) on the next, and on the third, the fortified garrison of the Royal Irish Regiment (the British Army, by any other name.)

Closer up, you see the small outward details of a town in the grip of relentless divisions. Painted curbstones tell you what kind of neighborhood you’re in — red, white and blue means loyalist and Protestant; orange, white and green means republican and Catholic. Graffiti proclaim neighborhoods not so much as places to live but as exclusion zones: “No Pope Here,” say the Protestants, “Brits Out,” say the Catholics.

If you walk up Irish St. to get to the market square at the centre of town, you’re walking up a mainly Catholic thoroughfare. If it’s Scotch St., Protestant. The square itself belongs to the police and military. Flak-jacketed members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary lurk in shop doorways, their automatic weapons at the ready. Without warning, soldiers in full battle-dress sweep across the square on foot patrols and vanish into the narrow streets on the other side.

From the square you hear the big Wessex helicopters lifting off from the landing pad at the army garrison as they ferry soldiers to patrols in the countryside. Once in a while an armored Land Rover slowly makes its way around the square, the soldiers inside peering through their telescopic gunsights at shoppers going in and out of stores, schoolkids lined up for a bus or young men trading brags and cigarettes under the cenotaph. At dusk you can hear the report of automatic gunfire as soldiers practise their marksmanship in the garrison weapons pit. And in the middle of the night you’re wakened with a start by the ghastly roar of an army helicopter making a low-level reconnaissance pass over town.

It’s not supposed to be like this here. This isn’t Belfast. This isn’t Londonderry. This is a small country town you rarely, if ever, hear about. All it takes is a casual stroll to realize that the Troubles reach into every corner of Northern Ireland.

While the killings and kneecappings and rocket attacks in Belfast generate headlines in the world press, Dungannon has quietly won a dubious domestic reputation as one of the deadliest towns in Northern Ireland. Next to Belfast, more killing goes on in the mid-Ulster area around Dungannon than anywhere else in the province. It’s part of an area the Irish media call “Murder Triangle,” where roughly equal Protestant and Catholic populations have been subject to a seemingly endless string of tit-for-tat murders, and where the military has suffered some of its greatest losses. In the tiny nearby village of Moy alone, there have been 30 sectarian murders in the last 25 years. On the walls of the Dungannon army barracks are some 60 plaques honoring soldiers killed in action.

In the cramped offices of the Dungannon News and Tyrone Courier, Editor Richard Montgomery opens a thick newspaper clipping file titled simply “Killings.” The contents spill out onto his desk, a random chronicling of violence and suffering. “We’ve seen so much of it, we sort of take it for granted by now,” says Montgomery as he rifles through the pile of clippings.

It’s said that Dungannon is the most bombed town in Northern Ireland. The area around the market square, bombed so many times that nobody keeps count anymore, is known locally as Detonation Row. Located just off the square, Dungannon Presbyterian Church claims to be the most bombed church in Europe, having been hit 28 times since 1969. During the worst bombings in the 1970s, even the battle-hardened Belfast tabloids took to calling Dungannon “Blitz town,” their columnists praising the “Dunkirk spirit of the local population.

It’s hardly a source of civic pride, but there are those who pin the start of Northern Ireland’s Troubles on a 1968 civil rights march that wound up in Dungannon. It was part of a growing movement to stop glaring injustices against Catholics in housing, employment opportunities and political influence. In Dungannon and elsewhere, long simmering sectarian tension quickly boiled to the surface.

“At first rival crowds would gather in the square at night, Catholics on one side, Protestants on the other, the police in between,” recalls Montgomery. “In the early days it was just a shouting match. But one night someone brought a pistol. It went off and a Catholic press photographer was hit. From there it escalated into riots around town. Then fire bombings.”

The seeds had been sown long ago, in civil war uprisings earlier this century, and in a history of conflict dating back to the tribal wars of the great Celtic chiefs. Dungannon was the seat of the last and most revered of them all, Hugh O’Neill, who fought a valiant but vain battle towards the end of the 16th century to preserve the ancient Irish ways against the incursions of the English. As the English conquerors systematically took the best farmland and gave it to English and Scottish Protestant settlers — “planters,” as Protestants are still called — the Irish were forced onto the rough upper lands, taking with them their legends, the Catholic faith bestowed upon them by St. Patrick, and their bitterness.

It’s Tuesday, so Mollie Whiteside has taken the British Legion poppy out of her car window. On Tuesdays, Whiteside goes to the hairdresser. Her hairdresser is Catholic, and it just isn’t a good idea to display any sign of attachment to Britain if you’re frequenting a Catholic shop.

“The troubles affect everything,” says Presbyterian minister Rev. Max Watson. “Everything. We have two distinct communities here, and there’s no room for middle ground because there’s a war going on.”

For example? “If you’re Catholic you buy Kennedys bread. If you’re Protestant you buy Ormeau bread. If you’re Catholic you read The Irish News. If you’re a Protestant you read The Belfast News. If your kids are Catholic they play Gaelic games like field hockey. If they’re Protestant they play British games — rugby, football. Catholic teenagers go to Catholic dances. Protestants go to Protestant dances. Catholics drink in Catholic pubs. Protestants in Protestant pubs. The government builds integrated housing estates, and in a couple of years they’re either all Catholic or all Protestant.”

'Where do you run for safety now that the one who is your enemy walks in the street like you and talks with the same accent and smiles like you and looks just like a friend?'

It hasn’t always been this way. Mollie Whiteside, who was born on a farm in Saskatchewan but moved with her family to Northern Ireland during the Depression, talks wistfully of life in Dungannon before 1968. “We lived with our differences. What side you came from didn’t really matter.”

Newspaper and magazine articles Whiteside has written over the years — including an annual dispatch for the Dungannon, Ont., page of the Lucknow (Ont.) Sentinel — have chronicled how life in the town has changed since the Troubles began: orphaned children, friends killed, mourned and then forgotten as something new happens to hijack the community’s grief. She wants to believe that people here are bigger than the Troubles, that the British carry-on spirit will prevail. But deep down she knows the gulf is formidable. Fighting tears, she reads from a letter wrote to the Times of London: “Where do you run for safety now that the one who is your enemy walks in the street like you and talks with the same accent and smiles like you and looks just like a friend?”

Whiteside is talking about fear, and fear more than anything is the wedge that is driving already divided communities asunder. Most of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the paramilitaries — the pro-British, Protest Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the nationalist Catholic, Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the offshoot Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) — who are active in the Dungannon area and who have steadily intensified their war of retribution through the late 1980s and early 1990s. And as that dirty war widens, the paramilitaries grow more unpredictable. People wonder if there’s some twisted reason they’ll be next, or worse, whether they’ll be the next mistake. Best not to take any chances. As Whiteside says, “You need to know your company if you live here.”

It means the Presbyterian Church in Maghera, north of Dungannon, has to have a security guard with a cell phone connection to police on duty during Sunday services — a couple of known IRA types were seen lurking in the parking lot a while ago. It means the caretaker at Dungannon Presbyterian Church, a part-time soldier, fails to show up for work some Sundays because word’s come down that he’s a possible target. It means ministers have to pastor to terrified parishioners who don’t know whether it’s a crank or the real thing when a voice on the telephone tells them, “You’re going to be done.”

It means people turn a blind eye to suspicious activities. “Nobody wants to be fingered as an informer,” says Sgt. Basil Kerr, superintendent of the Dungannon subdivision of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A schoolbag left carelessly on the sidewalk becomes a “suspicious package” so people on their way home and from work or shopping cross to the other side of the street. Catholics think twice about going out to a pub if there’s been a bombing of a Protestant pub somewhere.

No one is quicker to defend life amid the Troubles than the people affected by it. Mollie and John Whiteside take me to a Catholic-owned restaurant to show me that the two sides do interact. Rev. Jim McCormick, clerk of the Tyrone Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and minister of a small congregation in the tiny village of Moneymore, north of Dungannon, assures me the Troubles “have never kept Protestants and Catholics from doing what they want to do.” Newspaper reporter Kenny Archer, who was born in 1970 and has known nothing but the Troubles his entire life, shrugs when I ask him if he doesn’t find the divisions and the violence and the fear overwhelming. “No, it seems so natural. It’s just part and parcel of life here.”

In many ways that’s the point. While life undoubtedly goes on — the district council pursues new industry, the Dungannon rugby pursues rugby glory — the Troubles have been a fact for so long that they’ve narrowed expectations and twisted ideas of normalcy. (The term “Troubles” is itself a revealing euphemism.) Father Denis Faul, principal of St. Patrick’s Boys Academy and an outspoken critic of paramilitaries on both sides, doesn’t mince words when he characterizes the dynamics at work in the community. “It’s sad, but the first question we ask people here is, ‘Are you Catholic or Protestant?’ This community is diseased with sectarianism. We can’t think straight because of it.”

Faul is annoyed. All morning, the helicopters landing and taking off from the army garrison next to St. Patrick’s Academy have been passing right over the schoolgrounds. Kids playing basketball and soccer directly beneath the heliport pay them no mind whatsoever, but the deafening roar of the choppers — about one every five minutes — makes it nearly impossible for teachers to conduct their classes. “They’re supposed to go around us, not over top. Happens all the time, though.”

Faul has spent the last 36 years in Dungannon, but is known throughout Northern Ireland. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he rose to prominence in the prisoners’ rights movement, documenting abuses committed under British internment policies and intervening on behalf of prisoners on hunger strikes. He’s also a voice for Catholics who want to distance their faith from the actions of the IRA — a stance that has earned him the nickname “Denis the Menace,” not to mention the occasional death threat.

When Faul argues that the IRA do not represent the majority of Catholics or even necessarily Catholic interests, he’s raising one of the prickliest issues you can raise in Northern Ireland: Is this conflict religious or is it political?

It’s a question that’s bedeviled almost everyone who has tried to answer what the Troubles are all about, and perhaps how they might be resolved.

The best answer is that the Troubles are both. Religion largely defines the political constituencies — those loyal to Britain tend to be Protestant, those who want unification with the Republic of Ireland tend to be Catholic —while the fundamental political issues have a decidedly religious aspect: Protestants want no part of a unified Ireland where Catholics would be the majority and where they fear Rome would have undue influence; Catholics link colonization by the British with the evangelical imperative they believe is basic to Protestantism.

Each side is guilty of wallowing in myths about the other. Protestants who fear Rome ignore the changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Catholics who view Protestants as agents of British imperialism ignore the fact that Protestant leaders have been among the most vocal critics of British policy toward Northern Ireland.

Yet the myths are real and persist; religion and politics remain as tangled as ever. “Ultimately this is conflict about power,” says Norman Richardson of the Belfast-based Churches’ Peace Education Program, a joint Catholic-Protestant initiative. “But it is also a conflict about identities — who you are; who you feel yourself to be. The trouble is, we’ve become very good at defining ourselves in terms of who we are not.

Even if the conflict is only partly religious, it stands to reason that at least part of the solution must be religious as well.

The British Army holds back hunger strikers demonstrating during The Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in October 1981. Photo by Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Officially the churches are trying. Senior church officials routinely appear together to plead for peace. The Churches’ Peace Education Program works at getting peacemaking and cross-community contacts built into school curricula. The churches are also deeply involved in the Education for Mutual Understanding program, which has officially been in place in schools for five years. The churches sponsor countless ecumenical conferences and workshops, produce a small mountain of resources on the theme of reconciliation, encourage development of joint Catholic-Protestant worship services and play an active role in various peacemaking communities.

But church officials are the first to admit that upper-level initiatives will never bear fruit if a contradictory message is being spread, even tacitly, from the local pulpits.

“In a sense, we’re all partly guilty,” says Richardson. “Our sins are sins of omission — not preaching about what it means to live in a shared community.”

The rabid sectarianism that issues forth from the likes of Rev. Ian Paisley is the exception now in Northern Ireland. The rule, as Richardson suggests, is more a grassroots reluctance to confront entrenched sectarianism, to shy away from acts of reconciliation out of fear of recrimination from within.

In Protestant churches, the source of such recrimination more often than not comes from the Orange Order, all but dead in the rest of the world but still thriving in Northern Ireland. Bitterly opposed to anything Catholic, Orangemen often control the positions of influence in Protestant congregations, particularly so in the countryside.

Jim McCormick knows very well the influence of the Orange Order. A while back he brought the subject of a possible joint worship with the local Catholic priest to his church’s Session. The Session, as McCormick puts it, “has a strong Orange component, well aware of the official Orange prohibition against countenancing (by presence or otherwise) any act or ceremony of Popish worship.”

“They said if I wanted to go and talk to him, that would be okay. But never would we have a joint worship.” Mindful of the less-than-happy fate of other ministers who’ve defied their Orange dominated sessions, McCormick and the priest remain strangers. “He’s been here a year and I’ve never met the man.”

For their part, Catholic priests aren’t overly anxious to extend a hand of friendship to Protestant ministers who they feel countenance incorrigible, anti-Catholicism in their congregations. Even an open-minded Catholic leader such as Denis Faul becomes vehement when the subject turns to Orangemen: “They’re pathetic, with their fifes and big drums and their bowler hats. They won the Battle of the Boyne (which secured the English throne for Protestantism) 330 years ago, and it’s the biggest thing in their lives to parade through town to remind Catholics of that.”

So the local churches turn inward — “walking with people through their pain and bitterness,” in McCormick’s words — but neglecting the prophetic work of reconciliation. As Richardson told a recent symposium: “Overall, there is too strong a sense of standing back, of being unwilling to take a stand, of risking losing members, of looking over shoulders at the more strident members of our religious communities.”

Of course, lack of ecumenical contact doesn’t translate into automatic support for paramilitaries. But it hardens the divisions to which the paramilitaries fasten themselves. And with each act of violence committed, even tacitly, in the name of religion, those divisions are further hardened and the hand of the paramilitaries strengthened.

“They pass themselves off as saviors, says Ken Stewart, who lives in Dungannon’s market square and has been bombed out several times. “But if you take away the religious window dressing, they’re just gangsters.”

Christina Statham knows the cost of all this. Eighteen months ago, the telephone rang in the Statham’s Dungannon home, and her 20-year-old daughter Julie, expecting a call from her boyfriend Diarmuid Shields rushed to answer it.

It was Diarmuid’s brother Niall, calling from home, a few miles away. Two masked gunmen had entered the house earlier in the evening, Niall said, and had shot Diarmuid as he sat reading the newspaper. Then they crept upstairs and shot his father and a brother. The brother was going to be okay, but Diarmuid and his father, Patrick, were dead.

The Ulster Volunteer Force later took responsibility, claiming that Patrick Shields was a member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Sinn Fein and the Shields family denied any connection. (A UVF man convicted of the shooting was recently sentenced to 480 in prison for this and other paramilitary crimes.)

Less than a month after that phone call, Christina went to Julie’s room one morning to wake her up. She found her daughter sprawled across her bed, dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. In her hand were photographs of Diarmuid and her parents. Beside the bed was a note saying she was sorry, but she could not go on living.

Christina has emerged from the blackness now, although she admits there are times it will wash over her again. She’s channeling her energies into the start-up of a bereavement counseling service for the Dungannon area to give others the help Julie couldn’t get after Diarmuid’s murder. She takes a long pull from a cigarette and stares out the back window and says softly, “Some good has to come from this.”

She and her husband Paul are both Catholics and they live in a solidly Catholic, solidly nationalist housing estate on the edge of town. But she says the deaths of Diarmuid and Julie have shattered any sectarian feelings she may have harbored earlier in life. “I’ve no patience any more for those who want to divide us. I’ve learned the hard way that we’re all the same. A Catholic’s grief is the same as a Protestant’s grief, is the same as a Hindu’s grief. This hating and fighting is pointless. It has to stop.”

Diarmuid Shields was the 3,029th victim of the Troubles since fighting began in 1969. His death was one more entry on a grim tally sheet that changes daily: in the last 25 years, more people have been killed and injured by political violence in Northern Ireland than in any other industrialized democracy. To date, 25 years of Troubles have cost the British government $2 billion in criminal and property damage compensation; policing and maintaining an active military presence costs British taxpayers an estimated $4 million a day.

The statistics mount and Northern Ireland continues to confound. So many of us have roots there, but what people in Northern Ireland do to each other offends our most basic sense of decency and tolerance, not to mention religious ideas of right and wrong. One wants to uncover signs of hope, but it’s hard to know where to begin to look.

Maybe among the wildflowers at Parkanaur Forest Park, a few miles northwest of Dungannon. About 50 nine and 10 year olds are spread out in teams along a pathway that follows a quiet stream through the former estate of an English landowner. They’re identifying spring wildflowers and charting the information. Each team is made up of kids in uniform — Protestants, from Dungannon Primary School — and kids dressed more casually — Catholics, from St. Patrick’s Primary School, Dungannon.

This is the Speedwell Project, a program that brings local children from both sides of the religious divide together in an atmosphere of understanding and respect for their shared environment. The name nicely sums up the project’s message: the speedwell is a four-petalled wildflower believed to have healing qualities.

Project Director Jean Kelly knows a thing or two about reconciling the faiths. A former teacher, she is a Protestant married to a Catholic; in practice she calls herself neither: “I’m a Christian.” (When she gave birth to her daughter eight years ago, the Dungannon hospital insisted that she had to be one or the other — that there was no category for Christians.) Kelly and her husband started Dungannon’s first integrated school and have been involved in a number of cross-country projects. “As an adult and parent,” she says, “I feel I have an obligation to make things better for the next generation.

The next generation comes to Speedwell to work on projects related to the school curriculum. While they’re there, a subtle process of integration takes place. For starters, participants must come from Catholic and Protestant schools which have cooperated in setting up field trips to the site. As soon as the children arrive, they’re broken up into mixed teams and told to come up with a name for themselves. That starts them communicating and co-operating, which continues throughout the day with the sharing of various tasks and culminates in a quiz where team spirit — not sectarianism — reigns supreme.

“Outside of here, they hardly have anything to do with each other,” says Kelly. “They arrive with preconceived ideas of each other, and we try to put those ideas aside for a little while.”

It’s a start. But Kelly has no illusions about a contact here, a contact there, solving all of Northern Ireland’s problems. The politicians say negotiations will end hostilities. Maybe so, but first groundwork must be laid inside the people of Northern Ireland themselves. Nothing short of a complete spiritual rebirth must occur, reshaping of identities in which people learn to conceive of themselves communally, not as members of two fear-ridden tribes. It means recognizing that the vast collection of stories called the Troubles is a shared anthology, not two separate volumes; there must occur, in the words of Church of Ireland Bishop Mark Santer, a “reconciliation of memories.”

It can be done. Sixty-five kilometres away from Dungannon, Isabel Hunter guides her small car though the mean streets of West Belfast. This is the Northern Ireland the world knows best, the Shankill, the Falls, where Protestants and Catholics crammed into substandard housing and defiled by chronic unemployment live in a state of open war.

Hunter is a Protestant, but shows no fear as she drives through the Catholic ghetto — IRA territory — showing me places where people have been murdered, bombs have exploded and houses torched, as well as the political wall graffiti that has become to Belfast what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Statue of Liberty is to New York.

Just as fearlessly she steers her car through the barracks-like housing estates in the Protestant ghetto, where the paramilitaries rule and where tough-looking kids have begun to build huge pyres that will be set ablaze on the holiest day of the Orange Order calendar, July 12.

I ask her why she isn’t afraid. Gently and confidently, she answers, “I’ve chosen to live here, I’m a part of this community. If I’m going to do my work properly, I can’t let this polarization get to me.”

Hunter is a member of the Cornerstone Community, which has attempted since its founding in 1982 to be an oasis of Christian reconciliation amid the white-hot hate of West Belfast. Operating out of a house on the so-called Peace Line, Cornerstone has 17 members, drawn from both communities; Hunter is one of five women who live there full time.

Crossroads is involved in numerous cross-community programs, but its biggest contribution is simply being there, to be a sign, as they put it, that “the walls of separation do not lead to heaven.” This is a prayerful group, with a well-articulated theological rationale for what they do. “The time we live in,” they wrote in a recent newsletter, “is similar in many respects to that of Jesus: murders and injustices were then common. Yet Jesus brought a way of living that cut through these divisions and offered people a new hope. He spoke out fiercely against those who committed injustice. He did not kill anyone. He managed to offer forgiveness to those who persecuted him. He continued to hope in his God in the face of despair.”

“We hope to be a symbol to the community that it is possible to live together,” says Hunter. That doesn’t mean that the Protestants at Crossroads have relinquished their identity or that the Catholics have moved away from the fundamentals of their faith. It merely means that members respect each other’s differences as well as the things they have in common, and get on with the job of being Christians.

It seems so obvious. But step ways from this little sanctuary, and you realize that the reality is the mean streets outside.

And so as dusk gathers on West Belfast, the young men of the Protestant and Catholic communities mill about, watching each other warily across the rubble-strewn line that divides them, wondering if tonight they will write another chapter in a story that has no beginning, no end, only an ongoing middle.

In Dungannon, the helicopters arrive and depart monotonously, the congregations from St. Patrick’s and St. Anne’s churches go their separate ways after evening services, and Christina Statham adjusts the pictures of her daughter on the mantel.

That’s just the way it is here.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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