Booming Belfast puts its blasts in the past

Times Staff Writer

The tour buses can barely squeeze down the narrow streets in the neatly rebuilt neighborhood once burned to the ground by a loyalist mob. Visitors climb out and squint at the towering partition that divides the fortified patios of Catholics from the walled-off gardens of Protestants.

The Troubles Tours have become a big moneymaker in Belfast. Why stop only at the renovated Grand Opera House when you can get your picture taken next to the former fish shop on Shankill Road where a Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb killed 10 people in 1993? Or at the Europa, once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe?

"We see massive potential here. And who better to deliver those tours than the people who lived the conflict?" said Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin, a guide for a group of former republican prisoners who drive visitors through the old war zones of West Belfast, now filled with tidy new brick duplexes and corner cafes.

A decade ago, Northern Ireland was a dark model of the sectarian violence pitting pro-British Protestant loyalists against Roman Catholic republicans. Today, Belfast has seized on its bleak heritage of rioting, bombings, mass arrests and ethnic killings as a growth industry. Even as its leaders missed a deadline to form a provincial government, much of the British province has already settled into the peace dividend.

This provincial capital is flush with new boutique hotels, exhibition centers, fashionable restaurants and office parks. The unemployment rate is the lowest and real estate prices the fastest climbing in Britain.

It's not as though everything is rosy. The economic recovery has been fueled, in part, by massive government spending and foreign aid. And the war isn't a memory yet: Loyalist paramilitaries, armed and funded by drug trafficking and racketeering, still hold sway over some of Belfast's poorest Protestant neighborhoods, and dissident republicans have mounted a series of firebomb attacks in recent months.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Gradually, a place that once was synonymous with the marketplace car bomb and the bullet-sprayed funeral has come to be seen as a model for a world steeped in conflict. Irish community leaders are invited to conflict-resolution meetings in the Balkans, Spain, South Africa and the Gaza Strip; this month, a senior government delegation from Iraq arrived in Belfast for briefings on how the country can move beyond cafe bombs and roaming death squads.

One of those exceptions occurred Friday, when a Protestant militant armed with a gun and explosives was thwarted as he tried to storm into a landmark meeting of the province's parliament. At the meeting, the region's two most intransigent adversaries -- Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and the Democratic Unionist Party -- took tentative steps to nominate the leaders of a new power-sharing government.

British and Irish leaders still expect to have the government in place by the spring, despite DUP leader Ian Paisley's refusal to take up the nomination until Sinn Fein pledges its support of the provincial police.

"I was at a conference a few weeks ago, and I found myself saying that I think we're on the verge of being able to talk about a best-practice case of ethnic conflict regulation in Northern Ireland. People would have laughed me out of the room if I'd said that 10 years ago," said Michael Kerr, a political historian at the London School of Economics who specializes in ethnic conflict and power-sharing.

The factors that diverted Northern Ireland from street riots and to Starbucks are global as well as local: the arrival of a united Europe at Ireland's door; the diminishing prominence of religion in everyday life; a flood of Polish, Asian and African immigrants who often couldn't distinguish between a unionist and a republican; the World Trade Center attacks in the United States, which took the romantic luster off armed resistance movements such as the IRA.

"People have come to realize that some of the old, stagnant arguments are no longer relevant. Armed conflict has basically outlived its usefulness," said Liam Maskey, a former prisoner who runs a business- and community-building organization in North Belfast, a patchwork of segregated housing estates where a quarter of the deaths during the Troubles occurred.

"The businessmen have been in the fore of recognizing that, but sadly some of our political leaders don't seem to have grasped that yet," he said.

"I don't think it's up for discussion any longer. There is a massive hunger for change."

Nowhere is the impulse for moving on stronger than in the neighborhoods of West Belfast, where the integration of the city center gives way to neighborhoods where Catholics and Protestants still live separated by gates that can be locked at the first sign of trouble.

Belfast landmarks

Mac Giolla Mhin takes visitors past the neighborhood park memorializing the fallen and imprisoned of the IRA's D Company, Belfast Brigade, on Catholic Falls Road.

Here is where the British army occupied the top three floors of the Divis Tower apartments as an observation post; there is where Bombay Street was burned to the ground by a Protestant mob. Here is Sinn Fein headquarters, and the famous mural of republican prisoner Bobby Sands as he looked before his fatal hunger strike in 1981.

Mac Giolla Mhin stops the car, though, when he reaches what is known as the "interface" gate to the loyalist Shankill Road area. It is still under the dominion of Protestant paramilitaries, though a cease-fire has been in place in West Belfast for 12 years. From this point, his Protestant counterpart picks up the tour.

"We're working on a project with a loyalist ex-prisoners group to do joint tours on a daily basis, because I personally don't want to go over there and talk about their background, their history," Mac Giolla Mhin said.

Nor frankly, does he want to go "over there" at all.

"We work with them," he said. "But that's work. If I went over into that area and had a pint with that guy? I might not come out of it alive."

Much of the Northern Ireland economic miracle is built on quicksand.

Although overall unemployment is down and land values are skyrocketing, it is still largely the government that has fueled the boom. One in three workers depends on state paychecks, a phenomenon that is likely to become unsustainable as Europe and the U.S. lose interest in "solving" Northern Ireland and international aid slows to a halt.

The huge boost in public spending helped create a Catholic middle class for the first time. Catholic students outnumber Protestants at the universities, in a major shift, and it is difficult to tell which of the clientele at central Belfast's chic new restaurants is Protestant and which Catholic.

Common ground

Until now, there has been little work other than the civil service. The historic shipyards that built ships such as the Titanic have been idle for years; the factories that once turned out Irish linen are silent.

The hardest hit by Northern Ireland's industrial decline have been areas such as Shankill, where generations of Protestants depended on factory and longshoreman jobs. Now, Shankill men and women are standing in unemployment lines with Catholic Falls Road residents, who, thanks to a history of second-class citizenship, were never hired at the factories.

For once, the two sides find themselves on a rare patch of common ground.

Community organizations on both sides of the partition have launched a joint employment service board focused on attracting businesses to both areas, expanding international trade for companies already there and sponsoring training to ensure that residents get hired when a new company moves in.

Geraldine McAteer, a longtime community activist with the West Belfast Partnership, said she and others took to heart the advice of former U.S. Assistant Commerce Secretary Charles Meissner.

"He says to me: 'I've come here several times. You always tell me you have the same problems. You've got these young people joyriding around, antisocial behavior, local community destruction,' " McAteer recalled. "He told me, 'At the end of the day, business doesn't come here because they feel sorry for you. They come in here to make money.

" 'You've got to start talking about your district as an area ripe for development, lots of available land close to airports, ports and city center. And your large, young population is a huge, vibrant resource. And your unemployed people are a labor pool ripe for retraining.'

"I never forgot that. And we began to reassess how we presented ourselves."

Across the city, people started looking at how to turn old problems into new business opportunities. And not just the Troubles Tours.

Maskey, the former prisoner, recently launched a video-conferencing business that enables those too nervous to drive into a rival neighborhood to meet instead by video.

Property developer Barry Gilligan is turning the historic Crumlin Road Courthouse, where a significant part of the Belfast population went on trial at one time or another, into a luxury hotel.

Then there's the Titanic, about which Belfast has been conflicted since it sank in 1912.

"We never promoted the idea that Belfast built the Titanic at all. We had this issue of, my goodness, this was a tragedy. The ship sank. We built it. We didn't want anybody to know it was built in Belfast," said Shirley McKay, head of economic initiatives for the Belfast City Council.

But with time, not to mention the release of the 1997 movie, such reservations have gone largely over the bridge.

"We checked, and there were 64 Titanic museums in the world, but not one in Belfast!" McKay said.

The city recently launched a redevelopment project across the 185 acres of waterfront now known as the Titanic Quarter, which is to include a science park, offices, homes and leisure and retail facilities. The centerpiece will be a world-class Titanic visitor attraction, set to open in time for the centennial in 2012.

In late October, workers began demolition of the Maze prison, the scene of the 1981 hunger strikes in which Sands and nine others died. Authorities plan to build a $110-million sports stadium, hotel, international conflict transformation center and restaurants on the site.

For many who look at the booming economy of the Republic of Ireland to the south, there is a sense that too much time has been wasted.

"We're sitting 100 miles north of one of the most dynamic economies in the world, and feeling that we've missed out on that," said Gilligan, the hotel developer.

"It is time that we as a people collectively realize that the war is over, and we've also got to realize that the rest of the world does not owe us a living."

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