Belfast's other side takes hunger strikes and bombs in stride

The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the British government and the IRA hunger-strikers does not dominate the daily lives of the thousands of Belfast residents outside the city's republican ghetto areas.

They have no relatives involved, they do not feel directly affected, and for them life goes on as normally as possible.

The stores are open and well-stocked. There have been many good bargains in the shops to attract those customers who still have hard cash, despite the economic recession that has pushed overall unemployment in this province to 21 percent. Cinemas, hotels, and theaters are still doing a brisk business, and people are even opening new restaurants.

A recent bombing spree by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) badly damaged two leading hotels and a section of the city center. But Belfast is used to bombs. The people have grown thick skins. They are no longer easily shocked or jolted from their normal stride.

The attitude of businessman Harpur Brown is typical. He is the manager of the downtown Europa Hotel, one of the most famous on the international newsman's beat. It has been bombed and attacked, directly or indirectly, 28 times since it opened 10 years ago. Today it remains open and flourishing.

Mr. Brown, a dapper man who has been with the Europa since it opened, is optimistic. "For years I was so busy that I rarely was able to go outside the hotel," he said. "We are still busy, but when I walk around Belfast now I am still amazed at the quality and range of goods in the shops and at the number of people about."

Another man who keeps a careful eye on his own accounts is Roy Heybeard, artistic director of the Ulster Actors Company. Mr. Heybeard is an ambitious young actor and entrepreneur who, with the aid of public grants, helped to turn the ailing arts theater into a center for quality drama and family entertainment. He took over the theater five years ago and has helped to fill empty seats with musicals, rock concerts, and Irish kitchen comedy.

He learned about profit and loss the hard way.

"Recently we put on a play about a man injured in the Ulster troubles," he said. "It was a good play and well-staged, but it emptied the theater. People don't want this kind of reality. They want escapism. If they know that we are staging a comedy, they will come to the theater to get away from the depressing news. The situation has been bad during the hunger strikes, but personally I am optimistic. I think that we will stay on here and entertain people for a long time to come."

This kind of guarded optimism is echoed in the most unlikely places, including the home of Westminster member of Parliament Gerry Fitt, who lives near the republican ghetto of New Lodge. His home has been attacked on several occasions by Provisional IRA supporters and it is now heavily fortified with wire mesh and security-screening systems.

Mr. Fitt is a former sailor and a folksy Ulsterman who has kept an ear to the grass roots of his native city during the 16 years that he has represented West Belfast in the British House of Commons.

"I have fought and won more elections than any Irishman, alive or dead," he boasts. And he has figures to prove it. He fought 23 government and local elections in the 23 years of his public life and lost only four. The most traumatic was in June this year, when he lost his seat on Belfast City Council because of his opposition to the hunger strikes.

Mr. Fitt believes that the atmosphere in Belfast and elsewhere is slowly moving against the hunger strikes.

"People are beginning to realize that behind the hunger strikes are ruthless men," he said. "Those on the fasts are living in their own little world which is divorced from reality. The Provisionals really think that they will put pressure on [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher by enlisting the support of President Reagan, Chancellor Schmidt, President Mitterrand, and others. But they are living in the world of Walter Mitty."

Mr. Fitt also believes that the Provisionals will back down first.

"The body of a dead or a dying hunger striker has been a more lethal weapon in the Provisional armory than an Armalite rifle, but it is my opinion that in the end the Provisionals will be he first to blink. They are not getting anywhere with Maggie Thatcher."

There are many who strongly disagree. Indeed, there is no open sign that the Provisionals are beginning to crack, even though Catherine Quinn helped to bring her son Patrick off his fast by asking doctors to intervene, and the Rev. Denis Faul, a prison chaplain closely identified with the anti-H-blocks campaign, recently advised the prisoners to suspend or end their protest.

So while this deadly and complex battle continues, Belfast and most of its people go about their business as usual. Mr. Fitt summed up the attitude: "I don't know of any people in the world who would have come through so much and still have survived with such resilience and a sense of humor."

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