BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Belfast used to be a place where you dreaded walking past an abandoned car on a lonely street for fear it might blow up.
These days, Belfast is a bustling city of bag-laden shoppers, well-heeled diners and nightclubbers shouting for taxis.
The backdrop to this decade-long emergence from violence in the contested British province is an on-again, off-again peace process that has just gone through an extraordinary string of shifts and turns, culminating in a shotgun marriage of the province’s two most implacable foes.
The peace prospects that looked good enough to merit the 1998 Nobel Prize seemed to have taken a dive in elections 13 months ago. The voters were disenchanted with the two moderate and long-dominant parties, and the fringes gained.
The result is that the biggest parties now are Sinn Fein, political arm of the Irish Republican Army that long killed and bombed in hopes of uniting Ireland, and the Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley, the preacher whose stentorian rhetoric has long defined militant Protestant politics.
But now that the two parties find themselves in the hot seat of this province of more than 900,000 Protestants and 700,000 Catholics, they are doing the unthinkable – contemplating a coalition and sounding ready to make historic shifts in policy.
Paisley has offered conditional pledges to work with Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein party and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which he used to denounce as a Catholic theocracy. Sinn Fein has offered its own conditional promises to deliver speedy, full IRA disarmament and to recognize the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s police force, which it used to revile as a tool of British oppression.
That’s still a long way from a happy marriage, and both sides resemble a couple at the altar, ready to bolt at the first excuse. Hopes for a power-sharing deal foundered last week over the IRA’s refusal of Paisley’s bluntly delivered demand for photographic evidence it is disarming.
But there was no breakdown, and business went on as usual in Northern Ireland.
Crucially, the majority of Northern Ireland citizens no longer see power-sharing as the only way to avoid a return to the violence that has claimed 3,600 lives since 1969.
“No one expects large-scale violence will resume. The old equation – that a political vacuum is filled by violence – no longer seems to apply,” said Robin Wilson, director of Democratic Dialogue, a Northern Ireland think tank.
The radicalized 1960s generation that formed the modern IRA is buying vacation homes and heading for retirement. Two incompetent IRA dissident groups haven’t managed a major attack in years and have no credible political base.
Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University of Belfast, said the IRA, heavily dependent on Irish-American support, is caught in “the 9/11 effect.”
“There’s no romanticized support for car-bombers anymore,” he said.
“The IRA campaign is done. It isn’t coming back,” he said. “Every year that passes since the cease-fire, the more the IRA guys settle into their sofas or just drift away.”
Meanwhile, people have already seen power-sharing flop repeatedly and wonder whether the latest hard-line combination on offer could do any better. An administration led by moderate Protestants and Catholics struggled through a saga of high-wire breakdowns from 1999 to 2002.
By contrast, during the past two years of low-profile government run by lawmakers imported from England, Scotland and Wales, the province has had record low unemployment and almost no violence.
“The feeling on the street now is: ‘No deal – so what? Why should I give a toss about what these guys get up to?’ It’s very evident in the past year how people have disengaged big-time,” said Wilson.
The big question is whether Paisley would ever share a platform with Sinn Fein leaders. He won’t even talk to them or shake their hands. And last week – with negotiations still in full swing – he called the IRA “bloodthirsty monsters.”
The most likely answer lies in the two sides’ shared interest in winning large British subsidies for their arm’s-length partnership. With that money, they could build a house with many walls, running their own departments with minimal discussion.
Walls work for Belfast.
More than 20 tall “peace lines” of brick and iron have kept the city’s warring neighborhoods apart for a generation. Many have gone up during the past decade of peacemaking. Not one has been torn down.