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Belfast after the Troubles

Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland adjusts to an uneasy peace.

Belfast 04 30 2013Enlarge
A man walks through the Shankill Estate, a public housing complex in a predominantly Protestant neighborhood. Many in Belfast say their communities have yet to reap the economic benefits of peace. (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost)

Editor's note: This story is part of a three-part series on simmering tensions in Northen Ireland. Read about how the Union Jack and an old prison have sparked new outrage.

BELFAST, UK — “Suitcases,” says taxi driver Pat McArdle from behind the wheel of his cab.

More than the swank new eateries in the city center, more than the shops and nightclubs stripped of old bombproof security gates, it’s the sight of visitors wheeling luggage that reminds him how much Northern Ireland’s capital has changed in a decade and a half.

There were no tourists before peace came to Belfast. Even locals refrained from venturing into the city center after dark. That began to change with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 15 years ago last month by the governments of Ireland and Britain and Northern Ireland’s political parties.

The treaty marked the end of “the Troubles,” the 30-year conflict between Irish republicans and pro-British unionists that claimed more than 3,700 lives.

People here say life in Belfast has transformed to a degree nearly unimaginable 15 years ago. But that’s not true for everyone: In the working-class neighborhoods that suffered the worst of the murders, bombings and violence, there’s a widespread perception that the real dividends of peace have paid out only for the advantaged few.

“They’re trying to make it a better place to live, but that doesn’t seem to have happened,” says Paul Ferguson, 50, a community activist in a loyalist neighborhood off the Shankill Road, the main drag in the Protestant side of west Belfast.

On this side of town, Irish tricolor flags and Gaelic street signs identify Catholic streets and red, white, and blue-painted curbs and fluttering Union Jacks denote Protestant ones. The main shopping thoroughfares are pocked with chipped concrete, graffiti and kebab shops that never seem to open their metal shutters.

These neighborhoods face the same economic crises threatening many inner cities in post-industrial, austerity-era Europe. The factories and shipyards that once provided Belfast residents with secure employment are gone.

Now the state is the leading employer.

More than 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, and stark income discrepancies remain between Catholic and Protestant communities. There are more so-called “peace walls” — physical barricades separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods — than there were in 1998.

The trauma of the recent past, along with lingering sectarian tensions easily manipulated for political gain, mean that for all Northern Ireland’s progress in the last 15 years, much work remains to be done.

“Transition is challenging for people who have been so badly hurt,” said Mark Thompson, the founder of Relatives for Justice, which works on behalf of victims’ families. “There’s a lot of unresolved hurt in our community across the community.”

McArdle, the cab driver, who remembers hurling rocks at police and British soldiers on the streets of his Catholic neighborhood, has his own take.

“If I go to Australia and someone tells me there hasn’t been a shark in that water for 15 years, I still ain’t gonna swim in it,” he said.

The Good Friday Agreement disarmed the Provisional Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups whose violence claimed thousands of lives. It reformed the region’s police force and stipulated that the six counties partitioned from the rest of Ireland in 1921 would remain part of the United Kingdom, unless a majority of the people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland voted otherwise.

Today, no group claims a majority in Northern Ireland. In the last census, in 2011, 48 percent of the population identified itself as Protestant and 45 percent as Catholic.

Central Belfast has taken advantage of peace to remake itself into an attractive, tourist-friendly European capital. The omnipresent checkpoints, armed soldiers and spot-searches of the 1970s and 1980s are gone. New restaurants, shops and nightclubs have popped up in well-preserved Edwardian buildings, and people feel safe enough to patronize them.

Last year marked the opening of a glittering $150 million museum complex dedicated to the Titanic and the Belfast shipyards that built the doomed vessel (plus many more ships that stayed afloat, locals point out).

After London and Aberdeen, the seat of Britain’s oil industry, Belfast now boasts the greatest per capita share of multimillionaires in the UK.

And when its turn came to chair the G8 summit this