Belfast is better, but it still lives with congealed hate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The black taxis on the Falls and Shankill roads began their lives 20 years ago as a temporary expedient and they are still rattling along.

They reflect the way life is arranged here. They are among the instruments that maintain the separation of the people of Northern Ireland.

The taxis travel up the Falls about four miles, then back down again. On the Shankill they run about the same distance, then back down again. The empty stretch of street that connects the Falls and Shankill, Lanark Way, has a spiked iron gate that closes each night.

The taxis never vary their routes or leave the confines of the Falls and Shankill. In this way they are like many of the people they serve.

The taxis appeared in the early 1970s, in the heat of the violence that exploded out of the Protestant reaction to the Roman Catholic civil rights movement.

The Protestants on the Shankill declared war against the Catholics on the Falls, and the ensuing violence drove the buses from the streets. Gigantic protective walls -- "peace walls" -- of cinder block and brick were thrown up between the neighborhoods.

The taxis were called to get the people down those two arteries totheir jobs and to the shops in the center of Belfast.

The hatred between the two communities that flared two decades ago has congealed into a colder, more permanent animosity, though it is still lethal.

On both sides the ill feeling is cultivated by the communities' leaders. It is stimulated in drinking clubs of indescribable squalor on the Falls, dark places enveloped in razor wire. These are the republican haunts, where the nationalists, Catholics all, speak of a united Ireland and toast the day the British withdraw to their own home island, a day some of them believe will surely come, even if not during their own lives.

The loyalists gather in uninviting dens like the Northern Ireland Supporters Club on the Shankill, festooned with Union Jacks, and vow with equal fervor that the aspirations of "those people over there" will never be realized. Ulster will remain British. The loyalists, Protestants all, are implacable.

The odd rock still flies across the wall, the occasional fire bomb is launched or murder occurs. This was a particularly hot summer in that regard.

On Aug. 10, for instance, a Catholic shopkeeper was shot dead on the lower Falls, probably in retaliation for the Protestant man murdered the day before in Londonderry. Another Catholic, a delivery man, was murdered Aug. 31 in north Belfast, then another Sept. 3 just off the Falls.

There have been nearly 20 attempted or successful political murders in Northern Ireland since late June, a wave that made a few people recall the worst days of the early 1970s. The civilian death toll, 41 at the beginning of September, is running ahead of last year's.

Nancy Porter, who runs a beauty parlor in the center of town, speaks with a strange mixture of attitudes of the people on the Falls and Shankill: disgust at the damage they do, awe at the unremitting nature of their hatred, but mainly weariness, the weariness of a person for whom Belfast would be a better place if these people would just go away.

"At the end of the day, your life is just too sweet to be bothered about all this," she says.

It's not that things haven't changed in Northern Ireland. They have. Belfast is a much better place than it was a decade ago, better even than three years ago.

A lot of money has been generated from private and British government sources to make it so. There is a sense of determination evident in this willingness to invest in what had been an expiring city.

More than $1 billion of private money went into the downtown area and docks, which glisten with new shops and revitalized businesses settled into newly built offices. Streets once empty and abandoned after dark are bright with restaurants and filled with people. There are art galleries and bookstores. The "Golden Mile," a stretch above Great Victoria Street, is so named because, by comparison to the urban desert it was only a few years ago, it pulsates with life today.

Further from the center of town (this city and its environs with half a million people make up a third of Northern Ireland's population), lovely neighborhoods proliferate, clean and cropped. The whole city has a pleasing Georgian look, a property-proud look.

More important, the animosities of the Falls and Shankill have not spread there. Most of these communities are solid Protestant, but rich and middle-class Catholics live scattered among them, unmolested by their neighbors.

"It's only the poor people who are fighting each other," says Eddie Robinson, who drives his cab into all of Belfast's neighborhoods.

But there are a lot of poor people in Northern Ireland.

In an effort to respond to them, Britain has spent more than $1 billion in the past decade to improve housing throughout the province. In 1973, 25 percent of the houses were unfit to live in. In 1987, only 8 percent were.

Much of the money went into the Falls and Shankill. This was, admittedly, a direct reaction to the civil rights movement's demands for better housing. Also, the government hoped that by improving things, it might undercut the appeal that the more radical republican party, Sinn Fein, has for a large part of the Catholic population.

Sinn Fein is the main opposition party on the Belfast City Council, after the Unionist parties -- Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist -- which represent the Protestant majority. Its declared reason for being is to effect the reunification of Ireland and see British rule ended. The Unionists ran the province for over 50 years, almost exclusively for the benefit of their own people and to the disadvantage of the Catholic minority who suffered discrimination in housing, jobs and in just about every other area of life.

Britain ended home rule in 1972 amid the violence that resulted when that system was challenged by the Catholic civil rights movement.

Stephen Hughes, an economics counselor with the Northern Ireland Office, the branch of the British government that runs the province, believes that Belfast would be better off if its image could only be improved.

"If you look in the media, you get the impression this is a mini-Beirut," he said.

This, he says, discourages companies from investing in the province, keeping Belfast from the prosperity it knew when it was a world leader in the manufacture of ships and linen.

Belfast was, and remains, the industrial heart of Northern Ireland. But the heart is weak.

After World War II, for instance, Harland and Wolff employed 45,000 people building ships. Today it employs 3,000.

In late August there was great joy when the shipyard won a contract from a Hong Kong company to build supertankers. But it meant no new jobs, just the maintenance of existing positions for the next four years.

Since 1979, Northern Ireland has lost 40,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing. The province's overall unemployment rate is 14 percent. It is between 25 percent and 30 percent in the western part of the province, where there are more Catholics.

And in the Falls and Shankill? "In those areas, maybe up to 60 percent," Mr. Hughes said. "Maybe higher." (Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein insists that it goes as high as 85 percent.)

He speaks of families that have not known steady employment for three generations and have no experience of the simple discipline it requires to keep a job.

But then, they are the unluckiest people in a city not known for its luck. Belfast, after all, is the town that built the Titanic.

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