It was the paramilitary cease-fires that first made hopes soar here. When the IRA and the loyalist military command declared an end to military action in 1994, it signaled that peace - and a life different from "the Troubles" - might somehow be possible.
And when the political parties with links to the paramilitaries for the most part signed onto the 1998 peace agreement, it signaled a broad affirmation that violence was no longer the favored means to an end.
Easier said than done.
"After 30 years of cultural violence, when violence has insinuated itself into the very fabric of society, you can't switch it off overnight," says Billy Mitchell, director of LINC Resource Centre, who has worked to bring paramilitaries into the peace process and involve them in community-building roles.
Some dissident groups that reject the political compromise still cause sporadic outbursts from the sidelines, says Mari Fitzduff, director of INCORE, who has studied paramilitary groups. And the issue of giving up weapons is still a sticking point in implementing the peace agreement.
But political violence isn't the only challenge. The Troubles have left a tragic legacy of a "culture of violence," in which paramilitaries act as brutal enforcers within their own communities; a heavily Protestant police force faces deep distrust in some areas where it has been seen as acting against the community; children have been affected by growing up amid terror and surveillance.
As one youth told interviewers for a major study on the cost of the Troubles, "Most people are afraid to talk to somebody. They just keep it bottled up, so they do.... It just hurts too much, so it does.... The longer they keep it bottled up, their heart just turns to anger." In the past, that kind of anger has led some youths to join the paramilitaries or get involved in "antisocial behavior."
Now at the political level under the peace agreement, commissions are grappling not only with disarming paramilitaries but also with the institutional reforms needed to make the police (still 91 percent Protestant, while the population is 41 percent Catholic) more representative.
At the community level, it's the attitudes and behavior that have to change - among the paramilitaries, police, and community. Perhaps the most confounding expression of the "culture of violence" is the "punishment beatings" that have risen sharply in both Protestant and Catholic areas since the peace agreement.
"Young men and teenagers have lost arms and legs, been beaten to pulps with baseball bats while pinned to the ground, been shot in the kneecaps," says Sam Cushnahan, director of Families Against Intimidation and Terror, an advocacy group for victims of violence.
They're called punishment beatings because it's the way paramilitaries discipline their own members who break the rules, or others who carry on antisocial behavior - from stealing cars to vandalism to drug-dealing - in the working-class neighborhoods where they've had an enforcement role.
"It's about power and control," Mr. Cushnahan says, adding that such attacks have always risen during cease-fires. He says the groups are sending the message that despite the peace, they are still in control. He also tells of victims who are cases of mistaken identity - or have simply gotten on the wrong side of a paramilitary member. And, he adds, there are people who would go to police for help but don't for fear of being viewed as informers.
Yet while some are terrorized by the paramilitaries, others rely on them. The groups say they are under pressure from their communities to deal with antisocial behavior. In one case, pensioners tired of problems caused by rowdy youths in their neighborhood asked a paramilitary group to deal with them. Tom Winstone, director of Greater Shankill Alternatives, a community-based organization in that Protestant area, says, "People want justice, but if police don't give it, they go to the paramilitaries. They want it today, not tomorrow. And there's an element that don't just want justice, they want revenge."
Winstone's group has been set up as an alternative to punishment beatings. After a two-year community research effort involving everyone who had a stake in the issue, Alternatives opened its doors last fall as a "restorative justice" (RJ) program. A mediator works with the victim and the offender in a way that enables both to tell their stories, the victim to be compensated, and the offender to take responsibility. The aim is to help restore community relationships while dealing with the crime.
Two loyalist paramilitaries agreed, Mr. Winstone says, that "if there was an alternative the community would buy into, they would no longer be part of the solution."
The paramilitary group referred the pensioners' case to Alternatives. Through mediation, it was found that a 16-year-old - who because of family problems and loss had been on his own since 12, and in prior trouble with the police - was holding parties that ended in the disruptive behavior. The mediation process ended in the youth changing his behavior and finding help in the community, and the pensioners' satisfaction - a far cry from the usual paramilitary "rough justice."
"This alternative justice scheme and the people involved are very genuine," Cushnahan says. "They are making a good contribution to the community if it prevents someone from losing a leg, an arm, or a life. But any alternative justice scheme," he adds, "has to involve the forces of law and order.... To live in a democratic country you have to live with law and order."
Winstone has been negotiating with police and hopes to get them on his management committee: "We're walking a narrow path in trying to bring the police on board and also the community and paramilitary groups."
Neither he nor Chief Inspector Bobby Hunniford of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) want to go into detail on the negotiation. "There are some things we would have difficulties with, but we are trying to reach some agreement we can actively support," says Mr. Hunniford.
"We want to work with them because they represent the community, and we want to work with the community as long as it is within the law and everything done is totally voluntary."
The RUC is studying both community policing and restorative justice models in other countries, and is involved with other statutory agencies in a pilot RJ program in East Belfast. In the Catholic areas of West Belfast and Derry, republicans are doing the same, but they won't deal with the police.
"Restorative justice is a bit of a buzzword right now," says Brendan McAllister of The Mediation Network of Northern Ireland. "It's being used by competing sides to establish their influence on the administration of justice." Yet, observers say the programs have reduced crime.
Winstone says the community has to be involved for needed change to occur. While Alternatives hasn't been in business long, he feels the program is starting to change opinions. When someone steals a car and is beaten, "the gut reaction on the street is 'well, he deserved what he got,' " he says. "But in their quieter moments, people are realizing it hasn't worked. It hasn't been a deterrent, and it just makes young people on the receiving end more bitter, and the community suffers in the long run."
Ending community suffering is what many aim for these days. Of paramilitaries, Mr. Mitchell says, "Our job is to encourage them to think in terms that being a ... patriot isn't about fighting.... It's about building your own community.... To defend what you believe in, you don't have to kill someone. You can do something positive."