What was it about Belfast that so attracted and so repelled?
It attracted, quite simply, because it was always an intriguing pocket of the United Kingdom, out of character with the civilized nature of the rest of it, a medieval puzzle that defied logic and reason and any attempt at solution.
It repelled, in those early days, because of the tragic character of it all, car bombs exploding in the heart of town, senseless murder solely because of religion, the shooting even at funerals, the hatred everywhere amid the constant drizzle.
A trip to Belfast now--six months into a cease-fire and 25 years after my first of many visits to cover the torment--demonstrated how refreshing a little peace can be, how dramatically a mood can change, how deep is the desire for a permanent end to the violence. But it still drizzles.
I first went to Belfast in August, 1969, when British troops were arriving in force to stop the street fighting between the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. The city was shaking with gunfire and bombs; streets were barricaded with blocks of concrete and burned buses, and the conclusion then was unavoidable: There would be no solution. Every other crisis would be solved before this one--Vietnam, the Middle East, name it.
The world at large paid attention at first and then only periodically over the years. This was no Middle East; no chance of an East-West confrontation, no impact on the price of oil, no chance of spreading beyond that part of the world. The outside did look up at some major event--the killing of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, the occasional bombing in London, or some new horrendous atrocity.
But for those of us who spent time there as outsiders, the memories were vivid. I recalled the nicely dressed man I met and wrote about 20 years ago who stood in a pub off the Catholic Falls Road and told me how much he enjoyed New York City and its St. Patrick's Day parade. Then he suddenly added: "Want to come back to my place and hear some tapes of a British soldier being shot?"
There was the Protestant extremist who also spoke sensibly for a while only to pull out a list of license numbers of Catholic cars and, with an ominous smile, say: "We think these are IRA boys. We'll have to watch them." It was clear what he had in mind.
What he had in mind no doubt contributed to the grim statistics of Ulster: 3,100 dead and 10,000 injured in the sectarian violence of the last 25 years. Now the province faces its best chance ever for peace, with the cease-fire holding and the announcement last week of major proposals that could lead to a permanent political settlement.
Even before that cease-fire, agreed to in August by the Irish Republican Army and by the Protestant extremists in October, change had been under way. The Europa Hotel, for example, the favorite of journalists in those early days, has been remodeled with columns framing its entrance in a manner suggesting architectural inspiration from the Vegas Strip. There she sits in all her glory, next to the Grand Opera House, which, in turn, is next to a building with a sign boasting "Bingo at Its Best."
I heard more gunfire from my room in the Europa at times than I heard from my hotel room in Saigon during that war. The Europa itself became such an attractive target that the manager one night produced a sheet cake for one of the landmark bombings, perhaps the 15th or 20th or 25th. And the other day, on my visit, I heard that one of the IRA's negotiators now was the "Europa specialist" who organized many of those attacks.
Today, when they speak in Belfast of "crazy things" happening, the reference is to the somewhat eerie silence of peace.
Gone in the wake of the cease-fire are many of the checkpoints that divided the Protestant neighborhoods from the Falls Road. Gone are the daylight patrols by units of the 13,000 British troops still in Ulster.
Gone--and perhaps unemployed--are the men and women who searched and frisked shoppers on Royal Street as they made their way into the stores. And gone too are the expressions of fear and anxiety I used to see on the faces of mothers pushing their strollers, replaced by easy smiles and clear relief. Hatred has lingered; fear has faded.
It was all a remarkable contrast to the days I recalled and, as in the past, I made an appointment with an old friend who has lived through it all. Every conversation years ago began with the same refrain: "There is no hope," he would say. "Nothing will ever change. Give up on this place." We would then proceed to have a bad lunch, while in a bad mood.
This time, at a restaurant boasting a prestigious one-star rating in the heart of town, he had a different refrain. And it wasn't because of the watercress and potato soup with butter croutons or the breast of pheasant with fennel, mushrooms and chestnuts. It was because of reality.
"We pessimists have been right for years," he said. "It seems impossible, but we gloomy types may not be right anymore. I agree strange things are happening. It's clear that nobody wants to go back to what it was here. We have had a taste of peace."
Why now? The consensus seems to be that a weary IRA sensed the time had come for concessions that could lead to some form of unity with the Irish Republic to the south over the opposition of the Protestant majority in the north. The Protestants, who have insisted on remaining with Britain, appear to believe that some form of settlement short of a united Ireland is inevitable. And they have been reassured by London that no solution will be imposed on them.
Still, there are many hurdles ahead. Is it really possible that wizards or politicians can find a solution that has been so elusive? How long will it take? Will unhappy elements among the extremists grow restless with the pace of the coming round of talks and decide that violence may not be so bad after all?
As I planned to leave this time, I thought about the problems ahead but also about Sam, the fearless driver who used to meet my flights from London with his quick assessment of the crisis. He would say either that the shooting had stopped but the bombing had started or that the bombing had stopped and the shooting had started.
Sam, who was in his 80s then and is no longer around, would never have predicted a Northern Ireland where both have stopped.
Shuster, the former foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, covered Northern Ireland while working in London as a correspondent for the New York Times.