N. Ireland Youths Fight To Shed Ancient Hatred

Memories of murders at lovers' lane keep town divided

NO roadblocks or checkpoints divide this town south of Belfast, but everyone recognizes the invisible wall.

It splits the main shopping street of Lurgan, a town of 25,000 people, down the middle. The people on one side of the street are Catholic; on the other side they are mostly Protestant.

President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland this week draws attention to the truce last year that halted paramilitary violence. But young people here say the peace process is only slowly changing the pattern of their lives, or the life of their community.

Aaron Nelson is in his last year at Lurgan College, a Protestant school on the town's outskirts. He finds it hard to make Catholic friends, blaming ''age-old prejudices built up down the years.''

''People are uncomfortable about reaching out to the other side of the community, and there are few situations in which that can happen,'' he said. Mixing between the two sides ''does occur, but there are hesitations on both sides, and they will not be easy to break down.''

Across town at a Catholic community center, Kevin O'Hanlon has noticed that people are ''more relaxed and happier'' since the cease-fires. But he said the two factions ''are still fighting for their own causes.''

''I wouldn't know about the Protestant end of town because I don't ever go up there. At my end, where I personally feel safe, people are still carrying on in the same way.''

The phrase ''same way'' highlights the kind of tragedy Lurgan exemplifies in Northern Ireland.

'Enemy territory'

In saying that he always stayed in the Catholic area, Kevin admitted to a fear that, if he strayed into what he only half-jokingly called ''enemy territory,'' he risked being beaten by Protestant youths.

Such incidents - all too common before the cease-fires - are still happening, though perhaps less often. Paula McGrann, one of Kevin's coworkers at the community center, said she knew someone who had been beaten up just a few days earlier.

A gang of Catholic youths had given her friend, who is a Protestant, ''a busted lip and two black eyes, apparently because they objected to his religion.'' Paula is trying to buck the Lurgan trend. She says she is determined to ''live my own life, regardless of what other people say.''

Most unusually, her boyfriend is a Protestant. Aaron, Kevin, and Paula are Lurgan ''war babies'' - young people born after the Irish Republican Army began its terrorist campaign in 1969. For them, the recent cease-fire produced what Aaron called ''a wholly new situation.''

''It would be a good thing if the barriers were to break down,'' Kevin said. ''If you had a social circle of, say, 100 people, and they were all Protestants, you would have a narrower view of life than if 50 of them were Catholics.'' But that kind of thing was ''proving slow to happen.''

An uncomfortable social scene

Many activities in Lurgan, as elsewhere in Northern Ireland, have a strong religious flavor, with political overtones. ''It would be difficult for members of the two communities to mix in such situations,'' Kevin said. ''They would feel uncomfortable, because there would be a lack of common ground.''

He saw a parallel between the impasse in the peace process and the problems of ''reaching out'' in Lurgan. ''It's just a pity that there isn't a degree of real concessions on each side that would be better for us all,'' he said.

Over at the Shankill Community Center, Kevin was cautiously confident of the current peace lasting ''even if in places like Lurgan the two sides find it hard to trust each other.''

''People are happy that there is peace,'' he said. ''If anyone tried to break it, they would be attacked, regardless of their religion and politics.''

Yet the Catholic and Protestant communities can be quick to come to blows. Last July, at the height of the ''marching season'' when Protestants parade through the streets to celebrate their historic victories, members of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, tried to march in the Lurgan town center.

They clashed with a group of Protestants, and police had to step in and ask Sinn Fein's supporters to stay on their own side of town. The Protestants were furious because Sinn Fein had once staged a savage attack that devastated the town center.

For the war babies, ''memories of bad things will be slow to fade,'' said Aaron.

One such memory is of two terrorist incidents five years ago on the shores of a lake near Lurgan, where Protestant and Catholic young people used to go. It was a kind of lovers' lane.

One evening an IRA gang went up to a car where a Protestant part-time soldier was sitting with his girlfriend. They shot him dead through the head. Two weeks later, a group of Protestant paramilitaries went to the same area, selected a young couple sitting in a car, figured out that the driver was a Catholic, and murdered him.

Nobody uses the lovers' lane any more. Aaron hopes for ''an end to the kind of bigotry that creates divisions.''

''If adults stop brainwashing their kids and teach them the need to reach out and share, maybe the two communities will come together. But if that does happen, it will take time,'' said Kevin.

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