From whom all mercies flow

MARBLE. Marble stairways and marble banisters. Marble balustrade. Marble walls and marble halls, marble pillars and marble arches. Hard and cold and streaked with lines and patches of something coming through. By Gene Kerrigan

Belfast City Hall is a wonder. Up the curlicued walls to a dome. Down the corridors to solid polished wooden doors set in marble. Around the walls here and there hang the tattered and dirty regimental flags, reminders of blood spilt for empire. Light from the stained glass windows. Light cast on us through images of kings and queens. Everything is bigger than it need be. Nothing is built to accommodate a man, much less a woman. It is built to dwarf, to impress with its age, its tradition, its solidity. Busts and paintings of kings and lords, mayors and other worthies.

There's a cheerful curly-haired man dressed in a frock coat trimmed in red and gold. He's leading a class of schoolkids through the corridors. The kids are in their teens, well-scrubbed faces confident, every stride assured. The kind of kids you used to throw stones at and they wouldn't throw stones back or come looking for a scrap - they'd call the cops and maybe ask the family solicitor if there was grounds for a civil suit for damages. Those kind of schoolkids.

The cheerful man in the frock coat is pointing up at the mural. That's King James the First up there, reading out Belfast's King's Charter in 1613. And there you can see the Shankill church in the background and over to the left the representation of the city's industry.

The kids are being shown their heritage. Someday all this too will be yours. And leaning on the balustrade, not paying much attention to anything, jeaned and sneakered, the don'ttoo-sure brigade. The Provos were here in City Hall, waiting to see how their vote was holding up.

OUTSIDE IN THE COURTYARD the RUC had rifles and submachine guns. In here they had pistols strapped to their hips. Some wore bulletproof jackets, others didn't bother, rolled up their sleeves to ease the heat. Provos walking by, standing around. In other circumstances the Provos have a shoot-to-kill policy aimed at these men in the green shirts and the green caps. In other circumstances the men in the green shirts have a shoot-to-kill policy towards the Provos. In here everyone takes a break from that kind of thing. This is a time for assessment.

Is Paisley still the clear and uncompromising voice of unionism? Will the Provo vote stand up?

Down South there's still a belief that the Provo vote was something which sprang up in peculiar and emotional circumstances but which isn't, well . . . real. The Provos are not a political force, they're just a Small Group of Psychopaths being egged on by the Godfathers of Violence to engage in Mindless Thuggery. An adjustment here and an innovation there and we're well on the way to "integrating the two traditions".

The hours tick by in City Hall. A sign hangs on the entrance to one counting room - "Doubtful Votes"  and photographers can have great fun trying to catch a candidate standing underneath the sign. Otherwise it's a matter of trying to reckon if the SDLP are really as jubilant as they seem, or are they putting it on. Are the Provos glum or merely cautious.

Michael McMillen of ITN strides back and forth across the marble, talking to himself, occasionally glancing at a notebook. He's trying to memorise hos little spiel so that when he goes live on TV he can stare straight into the camera and seem authoritive.

Paisley stalks the corridors, grinning, a tail of supporters trailing after him and they going "aaaaayyyyy" and -"wahooooo". Jim Kilfedder moves from here to there, a milk and water grin on his face and his central casting bodyguard never more than a few feet away. Danny Morrison comes out and goes back in, Martin McGuinness at his shoulder, other Provos in his entourage. John Taylor is usually alone, his bullet-savaged face in a relaxed grin, nodding here and nodding there, stopping to talk to the press, strolling back. During the campaign he suggested that unionists might give their second preferences to the Workers' Party, the party which - in its guise as the Officials - put the bullets in his face. This is a rare example of someone literally turning the other cheek.

John Hume is always alone. He goes from one part of the building to another with his face set in an always-serious expression. Seamus Mallon or Joe Hendron might be somewhere about but it's just a coincidence in time and place.

There's a cheer from one of the counting rooms. That;s paisley going above the 200,000 mark. Peter Robinson, pin-striped and grim as a funeral director, leaves the room and says he'll be back in half an hour for the next ten or twenty thousand.

"We want Paisley" scream the supporters.

"We've got Paisley" the chant is amended.

"It's the biggest vote ever cast for a British politician," says Paisley in an impromptu press conference in the corridor. His voice rages as he speaks of Jim Prior and seconds later he's making a joe about something else. A born pro.

When the results emerge only Paisley can celebrate. The Provo share of the vote has held but John Hume has knocked about 11,000 from their total vote, bringing them down to 91,000. Danny Morrison has predicted that he would defeat Hume on the first count and that Hume would win the seat on unionist preferences. It's a clatter in the face for the Provos. They can console themselves with the knowledge that Hume is the best thing the SDLP has going for it and in the local elections next year the SDLP will be up against an array of Provos with local support.

"Paisley is our leader, we shall not be moved." There are only about three dozen Paisleyites but their voices echo from' the marble and they sound like hundreds: "Just like a tree that's standing .' .. " Not an inch.

The old civil rights song gives way to a hymn, The Man Himself leading the assembled company in Praise God From Whom All Mercies Flow. And the hymn ends and Paisley gives forth a stream of religious fervour on which float the gunboats of venom. Not so much for the Provos - that is taken for granted - but against those others who question his supremacy. "Many cruel and evil things have been said against me." But Paisley is "Ulster's Number One Man". The venom is hurled at John Taylor. "Mr Taylor will never be Number One in Europe!" Mr Taylor dared challenge Mr Paisley and now Mr Taylor will get to Europe courtesy of Mr Paisley's surplus.' Mr Paisley is Number One and Mr Taylor had better not forget it. The crowd screams approval. Uno duce, una voce, and it's about time Mr Taylor stopped nibbling at their leader's bum.

The venom turns on the press.

Paisley singles out a journalist by name and one of the Paisleyites points to the offender. If the Rue were not standing around the journalist might be eating more than his words.

"Ulster is British!"

"You can't stop the resolute determination of the Ulster Protestant people!"

"Ulster forever!"

There are, as usual, no politics but the politics of what we have we hold.

Michael McMillen of ITN is standing off to one side, speaking authoritively into a camera, saying that the electoral advance of Sinn Fein has been halted.

Paisley ends his speech with a call for the National Anthem. The cheering dies, he leads the singing. Scattered around the marble hall the members of the RUC come to attention, arms down by their sides, facing Paisley. •