The doors of the public buildings in Belfast are paneled in one-way glass. You don't see the security guards inside as you aproach: You only see yourself in the mirrored sheen.Skip to next paragraph
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The glass, like the barbed wire and the street-corner soldiers, is simply one more response to the well-known sectarian-based but politicaly motivated campaign of terrorism now in its tenth year and euphemistically known as "the troubles."
Yet the glass is also a symbol. For Belfast, capital of the six northeastern counties of the Emerald Isle which constitute Northern Ireland, or (not so accurately) Ulster, is an excellent mirror: It reflects back whatever image the visitor brings to it.
To those who come primed with news media accounts of bombings and snipings, this city of 400,000 is a grisly derelict. Blasted buildings, chain-link fences , helicopters, and police checkpoints are never far from view. The last remaining major downtown hotel, the Europa, offers its friendly and comfortable accommodations within a fenced compound where guards with explosive-sniffers frisk incoming guests.
Within view are other accommodations. The Divis Flats, not 15 years old and already a high-rise planner's nightmare, dotted with plywood-covered windows and graffiti, are set in a wasteland of discarded boots and broken bricks. They stand near what is called (also euphemistically) the "peace line," where Roman Catholic West Belfast butts up against the equally grim landscape of its Protestant neighbor, amid the nettles of sectarian violence. Low buildings here have barbed wire looping along their roof edges. Tall ones have garish orange flood- lights bathing the empty streets beneath.
But visitors primed with information about industrial development see another face in the glass. Here, they are told, is a region making a mighty and not unsuccessful effort to draw investment from Western Europe and America. Here are the kinds of financial incentives businessmen find hard to refuse: an amiable and disciplined work force eager to reduce the country's 11.5 percent unemployment, a well-developed infrastructure of roads and ports, ample power and water, new factories awaiting occupancy, and a government falling over itself to provide businesses with grants, loans, rent-free premises, and training programs.
Some big American names have come already: Du Pont, Ford, Goodyear, and General Motors. Some dazzling new ventures are in the works, most notably the De Lorean car plant. And some solid smaller companies, like Hughes Tool, are clicking along smoothly and have no thought of leaving.
Many companies bring their own top management for the first few years, who find around Belfast an easily accessible area of green pastoral beauty where yacht basins and golf clubs lie along streams bringing salmon and trout up to the weekend fly fishermen. They also find, despite press blarings, a murder rate significantly lower than in many American cities, a police force skilled in public relations and having no complaints about underfunding, and areas of spaciously detached houses more american than English in appearance.
Nearby are schools whose children, according to Northern Ireland Office surveys, have a higher rate of success in the nationwide O-level and A-level examinations than do their counterparts in other areas of the United Kingdom. Here they find a community eager to thrive -- alert to its common enemy and in many ways more cohesive ans less apathetic than in some of the English regions where unemployment is nearly as high.