The long roads to peace in Ulster are marked `Shankill' and `Falls'

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The Independent Culture
You can buy a book in the Ulster Souvenirs shop entitled Divided We Stand. Priced at pounds 4.95, it hangs on a rack next to King Billy tea towels and pictures of the Queen. They are all selling well at the moment in the little shop on the Shankill Road in Belfast, but they can't compete with the rush for posters of the Pope, frowning with hands over ears, muttering: "Oh no, not Drumcree again."

There are UDA armbands, Orange Order key rings and badges by the dozen; row upon row of cassette tapes with titles such as King Billy's Tunes of Glory; flags, hats and jumpers; postcards of paramilitary murals; and there is rock - seaside rock with the impregnated message: "A present from the Shankill."

If Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern needed to assess the state of their peace process, of the chances of recovery after its collapse on Thursday, they need only come here. They need to take a walk down two roads, the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls, to see the extent of the task that lies ahead of them and to experience for themselves the gulf that still separates the two communities.

Yesterday, less than 24 hours after the farcical scenes at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the mood in Ulster Souvenirs was buoyant. The manageress, Joan Reid, 62, and most of her customers, were relieved.

"Would you want to have a government with terrorists in it?" she asked. "Of course not. Trimble was right - no guns, no government."

The Shankill Road sprawls eastwards from Belfast town centre, a major artery and shopping street that demands the loyalty of its customers like nowhere else in the city. People who have shopped here all their lives eschew the bustle of town for the familiarity of the shopkeepers and the camaraderie of their neighbours.

These were the people buying their groceries on 23 October 1993 when a bomb exploded in a chip shop below the UDA headquarters, killing nine and injuring dozens. If you walk down the road from Ulster Souvenirs you can see a memorial to those who died, a beautiful Victorian lamp dedicated to the victims.

A plinth below it is engraved: "To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. St Luke, Chapter 1 Verse 79."

When you see it, it is easier to understand the sense of relief a few hundred yards up the road in the souvenir shop. The chip shop was reduced to rubble and has remained a visible wound on the community's psyche for perhaps too long. It was not until August of last year that the site was reborn as a cafe and youth centre. Now, as Stars and Stripes, it serves up roast-beef dinners at pounds 2.95 and Ulster fry-ups at pounds 1.65. Its walls are pink and yellow, stencilled with green leaf borders and adorned with Americana; posters of baseball players such as Wade Boggs and Tino Martinez.

Its manageress is Elizabeth McKee, who is the sister-in-law of the local Elim church pastor, Jeff McKee. A bright, diminutive woman, she is proud that the scene of such pain is now a place of peace. But if Mr Blair were to stop on his walk and have a cup of tea with her, he would learn a thing or two.

"Of course we want peace, but I agree with Mr Trimble - we don't want to negotiate with people who are still armed," she said. "On the day this place was bombed, I was up the road at our old youth centre on Tennent Street. We felt the blast. We thought that someone had kicked a ball against our shutters.

"When I realised what it was," she recalled, "I ran out; it was the time my mother usually did her shopping. She was OK, but as I got closer to the scene, people were shouting, `There are bodies everywhere.' That sort of thing is hard to forget."

Upstairs, on the level that once housed the UDA headquarters, the bombers' real targets, Hugh Sinclair and Stephen Barr, run cross-community projects aimed at helping delinquent youths. They can't always get kids from both communities together - and they certainly can't meet on the Shankill Road - but when they do, they take them out of town to go canoeing, walking and climbing.

"They are eight-week courses and by the end of them the lads get on all right," said Mr Sinclair. "But when they go back to their own communities, it's hard to keep in touch."

As he walked down the Shankill Road, the Prime Minister would see bunting and flags outside every house - a hangover from the marching season - and murals depicting paramilitaries in Balaclavas, men of violence seen as the guardians of a way of life under threat.

And then he would come across Lanark Way, a nondescript road with 10- ft metal barriers across its middle. If he walked there at night, the barriers would be closed, but by day the route would lead him very quickly to the Falls. No Union flags here, but perhaps more paramilitary murals and huge reminders of injustices, perceived or real.

A 6-ft-high wooden sign reads: "History of the RUC - Torture; Shoot to Kill Incidents; Misuse of Plastic Bullets; Intimidation of Nationalists..." and so on, and he would know he had arrived in the republican heartland.

A short walk would take him to the old Sinn Fein headquarters, surrounded by huge boulders, now closed and shuttered up. On its side wall, at the junction with Sevastopol Street, is a huge mural of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, looking youthful and happy above the slogan: "Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has his/ her own part to play." It closed shortly after an RUC policeman marched in and shot three people, killing one, before turning the gun on himself some time later.

Next door is the Neighbourhood Development Association, which gives benefits and housing advice to those who have been dragged down by the blight on the area. Here, the Prime Minister would do well to chat for a while with Eddie Malone, a counsellor and consultant for Labour's beloved New Deal. Because if he did, he would hear what most people articulate up and down the Falls: that the Catholics hold out more hope for peace than the Protestants.

"Everyone was very disappointed by what happened, but it will move on - it has to move on," said Mr Malone. "People generally believe that there will be a solution.

"I know the Unionists have a problem with decommissioning and with sitting down with people that they describe as terrorists. But Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. People have to embrace democracy and move on."

It is a sentiment easier for some to grasp than others. In the Red Devil pub, a shrine to Manchester United, the manager, Jim Killyleagh, 31, is more concerned by loyalist decommissioning. Four weeks ago, on a Thursday night, two paramilitaries attempted to blow up his customers with a hand grenade.

"It was about 11.30pm," he said. "They tried to get in through the side door, but that had been locked for a private function. They came round the front, but two customers were leaving and appear to have frightened them, so they turned around and threw the grenade at two other men outside another pub over the road."

The victims, outside Caffreys, escaped with shrapnel wounds, but the incident has left a scar. "Now, whenever there is an up or down in the peace process, everyone thinks it could be an excuse for someone to have a pop," he said. "On Thursday night, after the process broke down, we noticed a fall in the number of customers we would usually have. I think people would prefer a solution."

Farther down the road, polishing her step and wiping clean the painted brickwork outside her house, a middle-aged woman passes some mail to her elderly next-door neighbour, and they then discuss the peace process. They will not allow their names to be used, but they speak to each other with an old-fashioned formality.

"I think they should get rid of all the politicians and let the people get in that Assembly, don't you, Mrs?" says one.

"Absolutely right, Mrs," says the other. "If this review fails, God knows where we'll be. The main thing is that most people want peace, most people want this thing to succeed and what we believe is that eventually, if we get rid of these pig-headed politicians, it will. I think the other side think that, too."

It would come as music to Mr Blair's ears at the end of his walk. But, more than the walking itself, perhaps it would encourage the Prime Minister to recommend to Northern Ireland's stubborn politicians the value of taking a walk in someone else's shoes.