Belfast — When businessman Larry Baker told his mother in eastern Pennsylvania that he had been transferred to Northern Ireland, she was alarmed. ''You might to be shot!'' she exclaimed. ''Don't you know there's a war over there?''
Jim Curtin ran into an indignant mother-in-law when he told her that he and his wife were leaving Pittsburgh to work near Belfast. ''You mean,'' his mother-in-law asked, ''you're taking my daughter to live in a grass hut in that place where all the bombs keep going off?''
These reactions are typical of the ways many Americans and Europeans regard Northern Ireland today. The Ulster image is poor, to say the least. Headlines and television screens tell of seemingly endless violence.
The sectarian violence is bad enough in itself, but it also stops economic growth by keeping overseas investors away.
This is a fundamental issue to the British government, which runs Northern Ireland. The region has long been the poorest in the United Kingdom. As of Jan. 5, 21.2 percent of the work force was out of a job - 118,430 people. Among school-leavers, the jobless rate is said to run as high as 50 percent in some Roman Catholic areas.
Nor did the highly publicized collapse of the De Lorean sports car venture do anything to help the image. Some 2,000 people were making the gull-wing sports car before John Z. De Lorean went spectacularly out of business. He has been on trial in Los Angeles on charges of resorting to drug dealing to raise cash.
However, there is another side to Northern Ireland, hard as it may be for people abroad to visualize it.
Both Mr. Baker and Mr. Curtin say they have been pleasantly surprised at what they found here.
''Yes, there is the violence,'' Mr. Baker says in the large factory his US company operates seven miles from Belfast, making auto seatbelts for Europe and the US.
''But my family and I live and work outside the city. The countryside is lovely. The pace is relaxed. The roads are first-class. The golf courses are tremendous. The Antrim and the Donegal coasts have 600-foot cliffs, good beaches , unspoiled and uncrowded.''
As for doing business here, Curtin's and Baker's company, which employs 1,050 people, chose Northern Ireland because of government financial inducements and because of its location within the European Common Market.
Workers here have been well educated, they say. Needing their jobs, they generally avoid labor union disputes. The work force is young and flexible.
Company turnover has risen from (STR)1.5 million (about $2.1 million) in 1980 to (STR)31 million ($43.4 million) last year.
Businessmen with other overseas companies contacted by this newspaper say the image of the north aflame with violence still has some truth to it. Yet they think it is exaggerated by the press.
In an effort to change the Ulster image, the British government set up an Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland in 1982 to attract investment as well as to encourage local industry.
The board has a budget of about (STR)70 million ($98 million) a year, and deputy chief executive Tony Hopkins is constantly trying to find new ways to change the Ulster image. It's a difficult task.
The IDB has not yet attracted its first overseas company. It faces stiff competition from the Irish Republic, Scotland, Wales, England, and Western Europe.
Tony Hopkins, however, talks about ''projects in the pipeline'' and seems confident that companies will come.
So far, 26 US companies have set up shop in Northern Ireland, from Mr. Baker's seat-belt factory to Hyster (N.I.) Ltd., whose 400 people compete with the Japanese in turning out small forklift trucks. Together the US companies employ about 12,000 workers (some 13 percent of the Ulster work force) and have invested about $1 billion here.
''People in England still believe we have hens and pigs running around,'' said William Brown by telephone from his company headquarters in Craigavon, about 25 miles southwest of Belfast.
''But this is our base for Europe.''
Jim Sayers is manufacturing manager for the AVX Corporation at Coleraine in the far north of Ulster. With its headquarters in Great Neck, N. Y., and operations in South Carolina, New York, and Japan as well as Northern Ireland, the company claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of electronic components called multilayer ceramic capacitors.
In Coleraine, the company employs 670 people. It has just opened a second factory nearby. Its production rate has risen from a target of 100,000 in its first month to 3 million capacitors per day.
Men like Larry Baker concede some problems. But they consider that financial inducements to set up here (exemptions from property taxes, general tax relief, and construction grants) are attractive.
''The commuting is good, too,'' says Larry Baker. ''I drive to work in just a few minutes.''