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Booming Belfast puts its blasts in the past

November 27, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — The tour buses can barely squeeze down the narrow streets in the neatly rebuilt neighborhood once burned to the ground by a loyalist mob. Visitors climb out and squint at the towering partition that divides the fortified patios of Catholics from the walled-off gardens of Protestants.

The Troubles Tours have become a big moneymaker in Belfast. Why stop only at the renovated Grand Opera House when you can get your picture taken next to the former fish shop on Shankill Road where a Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb killed 10 people in 1993? Or at the Europa, once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe?

"We see massive potential here. And who better to deliver those tours than the people who lived the conflict?" said Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin, a guide for a group of former republican prisoners who drive visitors through the old war zones of West Belfast, now filled with tidy new brick duplexes and corner cafes.

A decade ago, Northern Ireland was a dark model of the sectarian violence pitting pro-British Protestant loyalists against Roman Catholic republicans. Today, Belfast has seized on its bleak heritage of rioting, bombings, mass arrests and ethnic killings as a growth industry. Even as its leaders missed a deadline to form a provincial government, much of the British province has already settled into the peace dividend.

This provincial capital is flush with new boutique hotels, exhibition centers, fashionable restaurants and office parks. The unemployment rate is the lowest and real estate prices the fastest climbing in Britain.

It's not as though everything is rosy. The economic recovery has been fueled, in part, by massive government spending and foreign aid. And the war isn't a memory yet: Loyalist paramilitaries, armed and funded by drug trafficking and racketeering, still hold sway over some of Belfast's poorest Protestant neighborhoods, and dissident republicans have mounted a series of firebomb attacks in recent months.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Gradually, a place that once was synonymous with the marketplace car bomb and the bullet-sprayed funeral has come to be seen as a model for a world steeped in conflict. Irish community leaders are invited to conflict-resolution meetings in the Balkans, Spain, South Africa and the Gaza Strip; this month, a senior government delegation from Iraq arrived in Belfast for briefings on how the country can move beyond cafe bombs and roaming death squads.

One of those exceptions occurred Friday, when a Protestant militant armed with a gun and explosives was thwarted as he tried to storm into a landmark meeting of the province's parliament. At the meeting, the region's two most intransigent adversaries -- Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and the Democratic Unionist Party -- took tentative steps to nominate the leaders of a new power-sharing government.

British and Irish leaders still expect to have the government in place by the spring, despite DUP leader Ian Paisley's refusal to take up the nomination until Sinn Fein pledges its support of the provincial police.

"I was at a conference a few weeks ago, and I found myself saying that I think we're on the verge of being able to talk about a best-practice case of ethnic conflict regulation in Northern Ireland. People would have laughed me out of the room if I'd said that 10 years ago," said Michael Kerr, a political historian at the London School of Economics who specializes in ethnic conflict and power-sharing.

The factors that diverted Northern Ireland from street riots and to Starbucks are global as well as local: the arrival of a united Europe at Ireland's door; the diminishing prominence of religion in everyday life; a flood of Polish, Asian and African immigrants who often couldn't distinguish between a unionist and a republican; the World Trade Center attacks in the United States, which took the romantic luster off armed resistance movements such as the IRA.

"People have come to realize that some of the old, stagnant arguments are no longer relevant. Armed conflict has basically outlived its usefulness," said Liam Maskey, a former prisoner who runs a business- and community-building organization in North Belfast, a patchwork of segregated housing estates where a quarter of the deaths during the Troubles occurred.

"The businessmen have been in the fore of recognizing that, but sadly some of our political leaders don't seem to have grasped that yet," he said.

"I don't think it's up for discussion any longer. There is a massive hunger for change."

Nowhere is the impulse for moving on stronger than in the neighborhoods of West Belfast, where the integration of the city center gives way to neighborhoods where Catholics and Protestants still live separated by gates that can be locked at the first sign of trouble.

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