N. Ireland's Minority Beats Back a Stereotype

Catholics grow more prosperous after long history of discrimination

'LOOK down to your right, and you'll see the peace wall that keeps the Catholic and Protestant communities apart,'' the driver explains, as he eases the tour bus into another blighted Belfast neighborhood. Tourists stare out at the awful, familiar wreckage of 25 years of terrorism.

This is the Belfast everyone# knows - or thinks they know: the shabby, graffiti-covered Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill roads that have dominated news coverage of Northern Ireland.

So firmly ingrained are these images that many visitors are astonished to find the province has an affluent side. Even more surprising to those conversant with Northern Ireland's bitter history of Protestant oppression of Catholics is that Catholics share in that prosperity.

In the last generation, British-ruled Northern Ireland has witnessed a quiet revolution: The rise of a Catholic middle class. It could arguably do as much to bring a permanent peace to Northern Ireland as the intense political negotiations that political leaders are carrying out in Dublin and London.

''There's now a very big overlap between Catholics and Protestants,'' says Richard Breen, a sociologist at Queen's University in Belfast. ''And there's certainly a very wealthy section now of the Catholic middle class. You only have to look around Belfast to see Catholics have moved into areas that were previously the preserve of the Protestant middle class.''

In South Belfast, an Army helicopter hovers menacingly overhead - a daily occurrence since the end of the IRA cease-fire - but the street below is leafy and pleasant. This is the Malone Road, once solidly prosperous and Protestant, now solidly and prosperously mixed.

The small stone St. Brigid's Chapel built a century ago for the Catholic cooks and maids of Malone Road Protestant households is now dwarfed by a new, airy, $2 million church built by the contributions of a newly affluent congregation.

''The number of Catholics in the Malone Road area has increased in the past 25 y#ears, no question,'' says Monseigneur Ambrose McCauley.

''The majority of the parishioners now are professional and middle-class: professors, doctors, teachers, civil servants, lawyers, and so on,'' he says.

The quiet spread of Catholic prosperity can be traced to two events: The expansion of higher education, which started in 1944 and accelerated in the 1970s, and the imposition of increasingly stringent fair-employment measures from the 1970s onward to counter workplace discrimination against Catholics.

In 1971, for example, Catholics made up 15 percent of engineers and 18 percent of accountants; in 1991, the figures were 31 and 42 percent respectively.

Prosperity amid violence

These advances have taken place during the worst of Northern Ireland's political violence. And even as most Catholics and Protestants have segregated into single-religion neighborhoods, the two communities have, ironically, come increasingly to resemble one another - so much so that sociologists can no longer tell from census data who be#longs to which religion.

''All the other information collected about them in the census, about occupation, education, the kind of housing they live in, and so on,'' says Professor Breen, ''no longer allows you to say, 'Right, this person is Protestant, and this other one is Catholic.' In the last 20 years it has become very hard to predict.''

Catholics' stake in Britain

Researchers at Queen's University have found that Catholics have replaced Protestants as the city of Belfast's top earners, although that is partly a result of monied Protestants moving to the suburbs. More significant politically is their discovery that 1 in 3 Catholics in Northern Ireland wishes to maintain the union with Britain.

''I think a lot of people simply want to live in peace and go about their business,'' says a Catholic woman fetching her children from the parochial school beside St. Brigid's.

''Any change in the present situation would lead to a lot of trouble, so that's why some would be happier to stay as we are,'' she says.

But there is one major# difference between Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants: Working-class Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed. The government claims that a ''peace dividend'' from the 17 months of cease-fire helped it close the unemployment gap between the communities.

''We've been able to use the savings on security to put in more training programs for the long-term unemployed,'' says Baroness Jean Denton, the British government's Economy Minister for Northern Ireland.

Also making a difference are charitable groups such as the Flax Trust, which runs a small-business incubator in an old linen mill in the rundown Ardoyne district of North Belfast.

Up in one corner of the Brookfield Mill, the Catholic artist and sculptor Eamon Maguire chisels an ancient piece of carbonized bog oak into the shape of the Celtic god Dagda.

Since getting space for his workshop here, his business has flourished.

''Eight years ago, I was just scraping by, just enough to keep me going. But now I have time to go to exhibitions, you know, and do more talking about what I do, than actually do it,'' he says with a laugh.

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