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Behind the noted 'troubles' a curious glint of benefits

May 13, 1980



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.

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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."