Belfast: not a nice place to visit, even worse to live in

Weary of 12 years of violence, Gerry McLarnon stood with his wife, Rosalie, looking out over one of the worst urban ghettoes in Europe, an area scarred by corrugated iron fencing, defaced by graffiti, and littered by burned-out and bricked-up tenements.

One of the minority half-million Roman Catholics in Ulster, he sighed and said, "Sure it's a terrible sight. Protestants live in fear, too, I know.

"But what have the British ever done for us? We get the worst houses, the worst of everything. If it wasn't for the Provisionals [the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army], I don't know where we'd be, even though I don't like all the killing, no, not at all. . . ."

Across the other side of the notorious "peace line" of iron, concrete blocks, barbed wire, and metal pipes that separates the warring areas, Mary G. (not her real name), one of Ulster's majority of 1 million Protestants, raised her voice in her front room.

She was angry at the IRA, at the British Army, at the police, and what she saw as the world's misperception of her plight.

"A Canadian friend who came here thought all the Catholics lived in tin huts, " she said, as several Protestant friends hooted with laughter.

"I showed her the hut I live in, bannisters falling down, back wall damp. The Catholics get the best treatment now. We are the second-class citizens.

"The Army and police are scared to go into Catholic areas anymore. Our children are questioned and our houses searched when it's them who are causing the trouble.

"I ask you: When has [the Rev. Ian] Paisley ever been wrong?"

These are but two of many conflicting views expressed to this correspondent in two days of interviewing up and down Catholic and Protestant areas in West Belfast, as hunger-striking IRA prisoner Bobby Sands came close to death April 30. Both communities were braced for an expected upsurge in rioting in what must be one of the bleakest urban battlegrounds in the world.

Their words reflect mutual anger, bitterness, and hatred.But they also yield courage, compassion, decency -- and a deep-seated desire to live in peace. Catholics say they like individual Protestants. Protestants say they like individual Catholics.

Both sides detest terrorism and violence; the tragedy is that so far, neither side seems able to forgive or trust the other.

Gerry McLarnon drove me through the Catholic Falls district, through Springmartin, Ballymurphy, Andersontown, on the western edge of the city in the foothills of the low, green Divis Mountain.

"See those homes all bricked up, no windows, no doors, filthy?" he pointed. "No one will live there, they're on the 'peace line.' It's a shame. The Protestants have burned them out. Three or four years ago, they tortured some of the Catholics they caught before killing them. Can you imagine that?"

Recession has also hit hard: Joblessness is the worst in Britain. Catholics suffer most.

We cruised slowly past deserted shopping areas covered by hunger-strike graffiti: "Don't Let Them Die," "H-Block Hell Block," "Blessed Are Those Who Hunger For Justice," "You Are Now Entering Provo Land," "Provos Rule The Falls."

A gas station was burned out, concrete building and metal pumps blackened and empty.

Rosalie didn't like violence: "But the Provos attack uniforms, not innocent civilians," she insisted.

A Catholic businessman, asking that his name not be used, said shrewdness and care were needed to live in the Falls area. "I don't like the IRA," he said, "but when they come around giving out posters about the prisoners, I smile and take them. What else can I do? If you're not seen to be a nationalist around here, you're a candidate for a bomb or a bullet."

IRA Provisionals were setting up new area defense committees. "Drifters, no-goods, they're being appointed area leaders, imagine. . . ."

He saw the conflict as nationalists vs. loyalists. It was secondary to him that most nationalists were Catholic and most loyalists Protestant.

"I want to see Ireland united mainly for business reasons," he said. "It would be a going concern."

Today he wanted to expand his business to Protestant areas nearby, but shrugged and said it was impossible.

Rent in the Catholic area was three times higher for the same storefront space available on the (Protestant) Shankill Road: "But if I go to the Shankill, I'll be shot," he said with conviction.

(Later, even moderate Protestant friends nodded grimly at this. "I'm afraid he's right," one woman said. "Either shot or a petrol bomb.")

Over in Protestant territory, on a tenement road called Duncairn Gardens, Jean B. (not her real name), complained the British government was "bending over backwards" to help Catholics at the expense of Protestants.

In fact, Protestant housing is also being replaced and renewed.But Jean and her friends are convinced that clever IRA propaganda is working against them, even though they are in the majority.

"You Americans just don't understand," Jean said. "They build new houses all the time for Catholics but not for us.

"Catholics know how to get benefits from the government. They know all the tricks. Americans send them money. All the big Catholic charities help them. . . .

"Why don't American Protestants send us money, too?"

She and four friends in the room chorused an emphatic "no" when I asked if they thought the 11,000 British troops and the predominantly Protestant police could contain new violence.

"They are afraid of upsetting the Catholics," said a woman in a red scarf whose son is in the Maze prison. (She swore he was innocent: "Others said he had firearms but he never had them.")

Repeatedly, the women brought out everyday grievances, rumors, and memories of hurts gone by.

"My son was bitten by an Alsatian dog turned on him by four young Catholic boys," said another mother indignantly. "The police told me to get him to a hospital. I pointed out the boys and the dog and asked, 'Aren't you going to get them?' The police just shook their heads."

"I like devout Catholics," said Mary G."They are fine, but the IRA are thugs. They are not religious. They want us out. If they rule Ireland, we're done for."

Most young men have moved out of Duncairn Gardens to find housing and jobs. The women left behind feel vulnerable -- they are reticent about Protestant paramilitary forces but clearly look to them for protection.

"We want the Army and the police to seize the IRA and shoot them if necessary ," said Mary G. "They know who they are. Let's end this terror once and for all."

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