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Next Step : Hope Rises in 'Bloody Belfast' : Even before IRA cease-fire, optimistic residents were planning for a better future.


BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Not long ago, parts of this great port lay burned and bombed out, a vast security fence encircled the central shopping area and the populace--both Catholic and Protestant--was grim and dispirited.

People were calling the capital of Northern Ireland "the Beirut of Western Europe" and "Bloody Belfast."

Today, there's a spirit of hope in the air. The 300,000 residents talk of a new Belfast.

The upbeat mood began even before the Irish Republican Army announced its cease-fire in the quarter-century of conflict with the province's British rulers. While the stunning IRA move of Aug. 31 has not been reciprocated by unionist Protestant paramilitaries, it has increased the sense that better times lie ahead.

"The mood here is more optimistic than it's ever been," said Joris Manne, a Belfast tourism official.

"The recession is over," added a journalist. "Now if the war were over, the city could take off. There's a good quality of life here--when they're not shooting."

Belfast is no Eden. Neighborhoods along the mainly Catholic Falls Road remain rundown and shabby, and the mood in the nearby Protestant areas along Shankill Road is dour and suspicious. In both districts where, as residents say, "the hard men live," no bar door is opened to a stranger without a close inspection.

The graffiti of loyalists and Republicans mark the sectarian sections of town. Sample in the unionist Sandy Row: "Death to all Irish nationalists. Better to die on your feet than lie on your knees in a united Ireland. UFF."

The initials stand for Ulster Freedom Fighters, one of the shadowy Protestant groups that want to keep the province of Northern Ireland, or Ulster, part of the United Kingdom. They are the unionists. The IRA, meanwhile, advocates joining the province with the republic of Ireland, which occupies the rest of the island.

In a deeper, negative sense, the city seems to be ethnically divided in the working-class, westside Protestant and Catholic districts. "Hard-core Catholics and Protestants don't want to live together," said one resident, speaking anonymously in a city where voices are often kept low. "It's as if Belfast's west side has become voluntarily ethnically cleansed," each group clustering with its own.

But to the east, in the business district near the River Lagan as it runs to the port and the Irish Sea beyond, the view of many workers, business people and investors is to the future. New buildings have gone up in the central area of Belfast, an old city surrounded by dark green hills. Old structures have been freshly painted; some of the monumental stone buildings, like the neo-classical City Hall, have been cleaned; security fencing has been removed; pedestrian malls have been built. Along the residential areas, Georgian and Victorian houses are being restored. The newly scrubbed St. Anne's Cathedral is equal to the Romanesque treasures found on the Continent.

In middle-class neighborhoods, Protestant and Catholic professionals have learned to live together in apparent harmony. Pubs are crowded in the central and southern neighborhoods, particularly those featuring music. At Clarke's Studios off Royal Avenue, students have booked up dancing classes six nights a week.

"We've had our troubles," said Heather McCrory, who was dancing to a traditional Irish tune in a pub, "but you never worry about getting raped, robbed or mugged."

The Grand Opera House, a handsome beige and white structure, is featuring an autumn season with "Eugene Onegin" by Tchaikovsky and Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

A venerable institution called The Crown Liquor Saloon, once bombed by the IRA, has been restored--courtesy of Britain's National Trust--as a historic site. Its fine mahogany woodwork, stained glass and tiles denote a better past than the recent one. Customers down Guinness stout and Bushmills Irish whiskey.

On a mile-long strip stretching south down Dublin and University Roads called, promotionally, the Golden Mile, there are some 60 restaurants and cafes, with prices considerably lower than London's. They include Roscoff's, which boasts a Michelin Guide star. Specialties include local smoked salmon with avocado and a sesame and ginger vinaigrette and crispy duck confit with port and Irish cheeses. Paul Rankin of County Down and his wife, Jeanne, opened Roscoff's in 1989 and have seen their patronage rise with the spirit of Belfast.

The bombed-out Europa Hotel, a landmark of what both Catholics and Protestants call succinctly "The Troubles," is back in business with a new facade faintly reminiscent of Las Vegas. Again, it is a lively center for news and gossip. Its former manager was awarded a British medal for keeping the hotel's doors open under fire.

The Europa will be joined by a 187-bed Hilton hotel in the Laganside, a new development area by the river. The $25-million project is expected to bring 250 badly needed jobs to the city.

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