Reaping the peace dividend in Northern Ireland

Ten years ago, I spent some time here in Northern Ireland, traveling around the Antrim Coast and in the interior, lecturing at Queen's University in Belfast, and, mainly, trying to get a sense of The Troubles at first hand.

I found that I didn't have to look far to see evidence of the continuing struggle between the predominantly Catholic republicans, who sought unification with the Republic of Ireland, and the predominantly Protestant unionists loyal to the British crown. On every street corner there were three British soldiers. Armored British military trucks roamed the streets. The Royal Ulster Constabulary – the police force long distrusted by the Catholics – was on patrol. And many buildings, not least the famous Europa Hotel, were sheathed in wire mesh to protect them from bombs.

The threats were very real. During my stay then, there were several violent outbursts that would add to the toll of dead that ultimately exceeded more 3,500 during the three-decade era of struggle.

While I visited many tranquil neighborhoods that seemed far removed from the conflict, the overall impression was more clearly reflected in the ubiquitous graffiti of the opposing sides – and not just that displayed on the sides of buildings in the working-class Catholic and Protestant strongholds of the Falls Road and the Shankhill Road areas. This was a society riven with tension.

I had several meetings with those who were working hard at conflict resolution and I learned how much of an uphill battle they faced. No one who read the papers, watched the telly, or spoke to folks on the streets, could have been surprised that it would take incredible faith and fortitude on the parts of many ordinary citizens and even more on the leaders of the mainstream political factions to move forward, finally, in 1998, achieving the agreement known as the Good Friday Peace Accord.

After years of confrontation, home rule was finally achieved and the impressive stone mansion,the Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, shuttered for so long, was reopened.

Since then the country has been moving forward in a mode of accelerating if lurching progress: two steps forward, one step back; three steps forward, one step back.

A backward step came this month when British Prime Minister Tony Blair suspended home rule after the discovery that Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political arm, had secretly copied classified documents at Britain's offices in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The incident has tested the fragile peace here, as have outbursts of old-style killings.

But it is said that these setbacks will not be allowed to rob Northern Ireland of the rich rewards already earned in recent years. What was set in motion by the entente has been enhanced by the continued if often grudging cooperation of old adversaries, the release of many long-jailed political prisoners, a general reduction of violence, and, as much as anything, the economic boom of the 1990s.

I had read about all this but had to see it to fully appreciate it. When I returned to Belfast this month, I found that the city, and all of Northern Ireland, has a different tempo and temper – and a different look from a decade ago.

What is most striking upon arrival is an aura of plate-glass prosperity along the shopping streets and in the malls, perhaps symbolic of the new transparency that is to be found in many other venues. The graffiti so prominent in the dreary, depressing, and dangerous Belfast of the 1970s and 1980s is now mainly confined to the hard-core partisan areas.

While there are still many serious problems, it can be said that the city itself has undergone not only a scrubbing and a face-lift, but a sea change.

Although the economic transformation is not as dramatic as that in the Republic, the Northern Irish have clearly benefited from the Good Friday Peace Accord – and not least in the increase in foreign investment and the surge of tourist interest.

While the Opera House, the Europa, the Victorian main building of Queen's, White's Tavern, and the Crown Pub – with its iconic mosaic entrance, famed stalls, and stained glass windows – are still familiar sites, many neighborhoods in and near the center of Belfast are unrecognizable to those who thought they knew the place quite well.

The river has been cleaned up and given a new brick promenade. New office buildings, a magnificent conference center, and huge Hilton Hotel have risen along the quay. All around town there are many more modest architectural changes. And everywhere there are advertisements for a host of concerts, lectures, and festivals. For the epicure, Belfast isn't what it used to be either. It has become a gourmet's mecca, with dozens of trendy (and good) new restaurants.

But, even more significant than the architectural, cultural, and gastronomic innovations is the metamorphosis in the political climate that has allowed all the other changes to happen.

Although it may be an Irish illusion, there is a sense of peace if not tranquility in the city. At the beginning of October, I saw no soldiers and very few police on the streets – though the police are still in evidence in their well-protected stations.

I heard heated discussions about the future, but most of those to whom I spoke seemed to think that they were on a course from which there was no turning back. Simply put, most residents I met are eager to put The Troubles behind them and get on with their lives in an atmosphere of increasing integration.

Since the suspension of the Assembly, there is talk about the risks of a return to the ugly and destructive status quo ante, but there is also the strong feeling that this will not happen.

Times have changed, and even though Northern Ireland is under strain, the majority of its people are keenly aware that peace has brought the new prosperity – and that to keep that dividend, the province must keep the peace.

• Peter I. Rose is a professor of sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. His latest book is 'Guest Appearances and Other Travels in Time and Space' (Swallow Press, 2003).

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