Belfast: a city hoping for a better tomorrow
At first Belfast seems just like any other European city where they drive on the left side of the road. But once you know the city's history or speak with the locals, then you see a different picture.
Take these taxis. They seem just quaint mechanical versions of taxis you'd see anywhere. But these are sectarian taxis. There's a group that services the Falls road (where the Republicans live) and a separate group that services the Shankill Road (where the Loyalists live). If you're a local you don't dare step into the wrong taxi. It is alleged that some of these taxis help fund para-militaries aligned with their respective politics.
Everywhere in the city one sees symbols that speak at once of how bad "The Troubles" were, and how much better things are today. To the left is an abandoned gate in the city center. When Kathleen lived here eight years ago, British troops would have stopped all traffic going through here. Now they are chained opened.
But everywhere the gates sit ready to be used again. When trouble brews, the British backed authorities close the gates to separate fighting factions.
A tourist today could spend a week blissfully unaware of the troubles. The Europa Hotel once had the dubious honor of being the most bombed hotel in the world. Now it is simply a posh spot for the business traveler.
Another sign of the amazing relaxation in tension is the simple presence of an RUC officer unaccompanied by armed British troops, and without the old vesture of heavy black body armor. And even though these guys have been targets and victims of lethal violence for years, this guy was as friendly as any relative.
Blair (our friend in blue) was concerned his car might be blocked in on the street where we'd parked if they still closed the street gates at night. So he sought out this officer a couple of blocks away.
Blair: "My car is parked just up there," he pointed.
Kathleen: "illegally of course." (we figure this was true, he was parked in a space that defined a turning lane.)
Officer: "where are you going?"
Blair: "The Kitchen Pub."
Officer: "Aye, that's a great pub. You should have no problems." He points up the street. "There are no constables up there after this hour."
Blair: "Thank you."
The officer had passed grace over an illegal parking situation he hadn't even seen.
It's like that here -- a strange mix of lawlessness and lawfulness. The radio still carries daily news of renegade sectarian killings and bombings.
This sidewalk on the Glen Road in West Belfast was dug up over the past few weeks because they were looking for bodies buried by the local IRA. The so-called "disappeared" are now at the fore front of politics here, with many sites all over Ireland being excavated for suspected IRA burials.
But drivers still stop for yellow lights and if you buy more than £25 they'll deliver your groceries for free.
In Belfast the locals take their boundaries very seriously. Fences are everywhere, and the more sensitive the space inside the more sharp things are on top of the fences. They're buttressed from behind so speeding autos can't crash them.
Murals express people's political points of view. Check them out with some explanation of the lines that have been drawn.
Everyone still lives with the feeling that where you come from and where you're going is watched by potentially dangerous persons.
Every person but the most hard core we talked to was dreading the coming march season. Over and over we heard the words 'civil war' and 'it could be another Kosovo' said with resignation.
But through it all the Irish keep their optimism. Even when they speak of the awful turn life may take here when peace plan deadlines pass and marching whips up violent passions, they turn conversation to something else.
Families are still growing and well supported. The 'Dole' here means even with relatively high under-employment, everyone can expect a decent house and enough money for food on the table.
At the end of the day, their concerns are put away and life goes on.
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