Belfast — My host was somewhat taken aback by my question. "What," I had asked, "are the benefitsm of the troubles here?" Ulstermen are more accustomed to articulating only the tribulations caused by the terrorists. But as evening settled quitely over the fairways of the Knock Golf Club outside our window, he and his friends spoke of the new- found concern here to establish a society where bigotry and fear were lessened.
Already, it seems, a new cohesiveness has surfaced, detectable only, perhaps, in contrast to other economically depressed areas in Britain, where no outside threat has yet energized the desire to dig deep for a solution.
It may still be too early to talk of solutions: For many here, the problems of the Protestant desire to remain British and the Roman Catholic desire to unify the island under one government remain irreconcilable, and no solution seems possible. To the poet Michael Longley, for example, the problem is intractable. Having just returned from a lecture tour of the United States, he is critical of Americans for being overly optimistic and, therefore, simplistic.
"They tend to think that if there is a problem and you apply yourselves to it you can solve it," he says, shaking his head.
But as Anthony Hopkins of the Northern Ireland Development Agency says, "You've got to travel in hope." And many here agree, even if they see no promise for a termination of terrorism or for any realistic political settlement emerging from the rambling governmental conferences and statements.
"One result of the trouble has been a counteraction of the wheel . . . going full circle and finding an urge for creative things," says Ken Gilbert of the Local Enterprise Development Unit. His group has seen "a definite upturn" in interest in crafts -- potters, weavers, woodworkers, lacemakers -- all coming to it for assistance.
Frank Murphy, drama director at the Northern Ireland Arts Council, says that over the past several years the arts have "generally improved" here. He points to the refurbishing of the grand opera house as a sign of newfound civic concern. The building, designed by Frank Matcham in an ornate Indian motif, was opened in 1895. Lying idle for many years -- and now next door to the much- bombed Europa Hotel in the heart of the downtown area -- its scheduled reopening this September attests to the local desire to return to normality.
Citibank's David Hume sees the troubles as something of a purgation. "Before the troubles, we had a problem, but we hadn't identifield it," he says. Ten years ago Ulster was on what he calls "a masseive downside." Since then, "we've cleaned out the cobwebs -- now it's time to rebuild." And he adds that, because the spotlight of world attention was beamed into every possible nook of official behavior, "in a lot of things we're cleaner than clean."
Asked about the benefits of the trouble, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins points to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). "The RUC has grown in size and efficiency and competence tremendously over the last ten year, " he says. He likes to recall something he heard from the previous chief constable. "I must be the only chief constable in the country," he told Mr. Atkins, "who is pleased when an increasing amount of crime is reported to me."
"I looked slightly astonished," admits the secretary of state. "What he meant is that the acceptability of the police has increased so much that people now reagard the police -- which they didn't ten years ago -- as people to whom they go for help.'
He admits that the police have had to learn tremendous amounts about community relations. And he finds fewer and fewer areas where police, who for years were hated by the Catholic minority, cannot go without Army backup. He hastens to add that it is not yet a matter of "acceptance." But at least there is a growing "passivity" to their presence, a realization that even police are better than terrorists
AFter the shock of Lord Mountbatten's death last summer in a bomb explosion aboard his fishing boat and Pope John Paul II's condemnation of terrorism on his visit to the republic last year, there has been an increased revolution against the terrorists. But as the RUC's Bill McGookin says, "Mountbatten's death is a dramatic incident that takes the feeling forward -- but it couldn't take it forward if it were not there to begin with."
He also cites another lesson learned, which is "the staggering cost of not doing things." One thing the police are doing is getting into the disco business. With the recognition that popular music is nonsectarian, and that one- fifth of the people arrested on terrorist charges in the early years of the troubles were under 18, the police have provided "blue lamp" discos as an alternative to street leisure. Last year, 240,000 young people attended -- Catholics and Protestants alike.
One Belfast-born corporate executive, who was nearly into his teens before he even met a Catholic, says, "We want our children not to grow up with the inbuilt bigotry that we have." It is views like his that support the 10- year-old Alliance Party -- a grouping of Catholics and Protestants that already commands something approaching 15 percent of the vote here.
The party's leader, Oliver Napier, ticks off a number of positive results from the troubles. In the urban mixed areas, he says, he finds "a much greater cooperative and social relationship between the religious communities." He cites the fact that Scout troops and Girl Guides now meet in nonsectarian groups. He also notes that Protestant and Catholic can now talk with each other about politics more easily than in the past.
Mr. Napier mentions a "slight" interchurch effort "at the top," and notes that it is now easier in the building trades to get a Protestant group working with a Catholic one. And he points to legislation that has "dramatically reduced" what he calls "pure naked discrimination."
Discrimination has not been erased: In a society where the name of one's school gives away one's denomination (church schools for the Catholics, state schools for the Protestants), and where even one's first name can tell the tale (Gerard for the Catholics, Gerald for the Protestants), separatism dies hard.
And, although some are embarrassed to admit it, the troubles have contributed to one real growth sector of the economy: security systems. Security positions employ some 30,000 Ulstermen. The Northern Ireland Development Agency has done a sector analysis with its market research team and found real promise for companies manufacturing security devices.
"It sounds like a bit of sick humor," says the agency's Anthony Hopkins. But he is convinced that sales will be heightened, if "we can market a product and say, 'Tried and tested in Northern Ireland.'"