Fear Touches Almost Everyone : Ulster Violence Down, but Tension Isn't

Times Staff Writer

When the U.S. Defense Department ordered $165 million worth of cargo planes last year from Northern Ireland's Short Brothers, it was agreed that the company would try to balance its predominantly Protestant work force with Roman Catholics. But when the company tried to fulfill this condition, it ran into problems.

Short Brothers, the province's largest employer, had its plant in the heart of Protestant East Belfast, and Catholics were frightened at the prospect of passing through Protestant neighborhoods on their way to work.

To resolve the problem, the company has opened a subsidiary plant in a Catholic part of the city--and a recruiting office in the city center.

This incident reflects the level of tension that continues to divide Northern Ireland, even though the amount of violence has declined.

In the last 16 years, 2,500 people have been killed and 24,000 wounded in the fighting between Protestants, who want to keep the province under British control, and Catholics, who want to make it part of a united Ireland. This year, the death toll is 55 lives, the lowest since 1970.

But the social fabric of the province, also known as Ulster, has been torn not so much by bombs and bullets as by mistrust and fear, which in many cases have generated subtle constraints that are difficult for outsiders to understand.

For example, Catholics say they cannot even be considered for the kind of highly paid jobs that companies like Short Brothers have to offer. According to Brian Feeney, a Belfast city councilman of the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic Labor Party, government-sponsored training centers in electronics, engineering and industrial design are all situated in Protestant areas where Catholic youths will never venture.

"In the Catholic areas of West Belfast, we've got training centers in bricklaying, joinery and vehicle maintenance," he said not long ago. "This isn't exactly the door to the 21st Century."

The polarization of life in Northern Ireland has taken place quietly and could have gone unnoticed by a casual outside observer, unaware of how to distinguish Protestant from Catholic. But people who live here have ways of doing this. Virtually no one ever asks a point-blank question about religion, but introductory conversations between strangers are often dominated by a search for clues. Names provide the most obvious indications.

Irish-sounding names like Sean Keenan or Seamus O'Leary indicate Catholicism; British-sounding names like John Carson or Sam Wyatt indicate Protestantism. The infrequency of intermarriage generally prevents confusion.

Minor speech differences have also developed, apparently a product of the social separation and discernible to the trained ear. Catholics and Protestants, it is said, tend to use slightly different pronunciations of the letter "h," for example.

Because of segregated neighborhoods, a person's home address offers another clue. Should there still be doubt, education should dispel it. Schools, segregated for years, tend to teach different views of the world.

Catholic schools have a picture of the Pope and a map of Ireland on the wall; they teach Irish history and present trophies for Gaelic football and hurling, an Irish sport somewhat similar to field hockey. Protestant schools display photos of Queen Elizabeth II and a map of Britain, teach British history and award trophies for rugby, field hockey and cricket.

Because of Northern Ireland's small size (slightly larger than Connecticut) and population (about 1.5 million), identity changes are difficult. Councilman Feeney recalled that a public school inspector had, through great effort and deception, managed to conceal his Catholicism from a group of Protestant educators until an old acquaintance appeared who recognized him as an opponent, years before, in a particularly rough game of hurling.

"He turned bright red and protested vehemently that he'd never played (the game)," Feeney said. "But it was clear what had happened."

Fear at Bus Stop

The fear touches almost everyone. A Catholic housewife pointed through a window of her home to a bus stop visible just beyond the concrete barrier that marks the boundary of her neighborhood. She said she is afraid to use the bus stop because it is in Protestant territory. Twice daily she trudges half a mile in the other direction to a safer bus stop.

Nowadays, people here have fewer friends who belong to the opposite religion than they did years ago. In some urban working class areas, the separation is often total.

"There are people 25 and 26 years old who've never met anyone of the other side," said John Cushnahan, leader of the small Alliance Party, which has tried to carve out a political base by appealing to moderates on both sides.

Integrated working-class neighborhoods in Belfast and Londonderry, where Catholic and Protestant had lived peacefully for much of the century, were traumatized by the violence of the early 1970s, which grew out of an accumulation of grievances by the minority Catholics. Such neighborhoods have virtually disappeared in the years since.

According to people who have monitored the change, the shift constitutes the largest urban population movement in Europe since World War II. Demographic studies carried out in the mid-1970s indicate that from 1969 to 1973, more than 30,000 people in Belfast (about 10% of the city's population) shifted, mainly in order to seek the security of one religious community or the other.

Anticipated Violence

At the time, most moved in anticipation of violence rather than as victims of it, according to John Darby, director of the University of Ulster's Institute for the Study of Conflict, which conducted the studies.

"No one felt safe unless they were among their own sort," said a civil servant who has lived in Belfast for 20 years. "Once movement began, it was hard to reverse."

In Londonderry, the River Foyle forms the divide, with the once-mixed "Cityside" west bank now almost devoid of Protestant residents.

In Belfast, middle-class Catholics have moved to outlying areas. The adjoining Protestant and Catholic working-class neighborhoods of West Belfast are divided by concrete walls 20 feet high.

The walls were built at the request of both sides.

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