In N. Ireland, politics don't curb Christmas shopping

Belfast traders report record business this year in the pre-Christmas rush, despite the uncertainty that still hangs over the the province of Northern Ireland after more than 18 years of political turmoil and intermittent violence. A large red and white banner draped across the city hall proclaims the Protestant's continued opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement: ``Belfast says no.''

Yet even the hard-line Lord Mayor, Alderman Sammy Wilson, a member of Ian Paisley's Protestant Democratic Unionists, softened sufficiently in public recently to underscore the trading boom and busy streets here in the capital. He said during a radio broadcast before the switching on of the Christmas lights, ``Belfast is now saying noel.''

The statement was made jokingly, but it hides an inner truth. Belfast, and the province of Northern Ireland, retain a remarkable capacity to continue with normality even in daunting circumstances. Politically, there is little or no prospect of agreement between the 1 million Protestants and the half-million Roman Catholics. The Anglo-Irish agreement, signed by the British and Irish governments in November 1985, was intended to improve community relations and to unite Catholics and Protestants in a concerted bid to combat paramilitaries from both sides. In reality, the gap is as wide as ever.

Nevertheless, people are putting politics and religion behind them and getting on with the business of daily living. Stores remain open for late-night shopping, hotels and restaurants are thriving, street singers and musicians play to the shoppers, and there is an air of gaiety in this tough, uncompromising city which has a vibrancy and an attraction of its own.

Tony Herron, chairman of Belfast's large Stores' Committee, said, ``This is a much better Christmas for trading than last year. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish accord last December, people seemed a little apprehensive about coming to Belfast, but this year there is a major difference.'' This is partly due to the thousands of shoppers from the Irish Republic who want to buy cheaper goods.

The shoppers travel in fleets of buses and take back vast amounts of goods, especially televisions, video recorders, and other electrical products. Despite the political gap between north and south, people from the Republic are made welcome, especially when spending cash.

But the benefits are not just financial. The influx of shoppers is evidence of a tangible normality despite the continued political deadlock and isolated outbursts of violence, including a recent terrorist explosion which damaged a police station in the city's southern part.

Rosemary Hamilton, a City Hall staffer responsible for the ``brighter Belfast'' campaign, said, ``We hear compliments from visitors who tell us that Belfast is so clean and that it has tremendous facilities. If people come the first time we have no trouble in getting them back again.'' The trading surge is also good for local morale, she added.

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