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Romeo, Juliet In Ulster Love Amid Strife Bodes Well For N. Ireland

Sun., July 28, 1996, midnight

They hated each other when they first met. He says she was stubborn; she says he was intimidated by her.

Exactly a year later, as they hold hands on a hazy summer’s evening, they are the perfect image of teenage love, fresh-faced and smiley, still prone to blushes and exaggeration.

But their friendship, forged across the divide in Northern Ireland during the fragile cease-fire, is a sign of hope among a new generation who have tasted peace.

Clare, 17, is often reminded by her family that her grandfather would turn in his grave if he knew she was going out with a “Fenian”; her mother lives in dread that they will marry one day and have the ceremony in a Catholic church.

Niall, 19, grew up on the Falls Road in Belfast, one of the most notoriously republican areas, where a Protestant would never have dared to venture before the cease-fire.

They met at a summer camp for young people of all faiths last year, one of a growing number of cross-community projects working in Northern Ireland, both publicly and underground, among people who often live in complete isolation from one another.

After the camp they began to attend a group that meets every Wednesday night at the civic center beside two staunchly Catholic estates, Poleglass and Twinbrook.

It was set up by Youth Initiatives, led by two Americans, who were invited there by the local Catholic priest to work with the community.

Niall and Clare gradually became best friends, and their social lives started to revolve around weekly meetings at the center. They also began going around to each other’s houses.

Clare was nervous of the Falls Road at first, and her mother often teases Niall, asking him last week if he was going to join in the Orange marches, but they get on with both families.

“We were really good friends and got very close before we actually started going out, although I think we both knew it was going to happen,” Clare says.

“There was a lot of flirting in between, we flirted for about three months, but I think I was ready to go out before he was.”

“We’re just like any other couple,” Niall says, “and we never really thought about religion. Every time we saw each other was at the group, and nobody cares less what religion you are there.”

For older generations, prejudice and bitterness may always run too deep. But the cease-fire gave many young people a chance to mix freely for the first time.

They go to the same dance clubs, meet on each other’s once-forbidden territory and have found normal common interests.

Clare says: “When the cease-fire ended my mum said, ‘you can’t go to his house’ because she didn’t want me going in a Catholic area. It was like she thinks I’ve got Protestant written all over my car, and they’re going to blow it up. But the cease-fire gave us a real chance to cross barriers we had been brought up to be scared of.”

Most children grow up knowing only the differences, the clues that easily identify someone as a “prod” or a “taig”: names are the clearest indicator; where someone lives in the roughly east-west divide in Belfast; the football team they support, Celtic or Rangers; even how they pronounce the letter h (“haich” for a Catholic and “aich” for a Protestant), and, of course, whether they go marching on July 12.

The price of crossing the divide has been perilously high, Many have been ostracized, or been targets of violence. But many others are taking the chance now in the belief that every friendship between the two sides is the only way to build peace.

Clare says: “We’ve really started listening to each other, and we’ve got to the point where we can talk to each other about the troubles and our differences.

“I didn’t know much about nationalist politics until we became friends. At least it gives you a chance to think, maybe they’re both equally wrong. With each generation it’s getting better. My parents are slightly better than my grandfather - although they’d still prefer it if I wasn’t seeing a Catholic - and we’ll be better than them.”

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