Belfast is better, but it still lives with congealed hate

September 24, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

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