eace, love and unity" may have been the constant Acid House refrain 10 years ago but, looking back now, we know it really didn't mean much at all. Maybe a few kids on E hugging a couple of complete strangers, or some football hooligan thinking twice before stabbing someone else on the terraces. But to all intents and purposes the world remained the same. Besides, no one knew what it was they wanted to change anyway. Instead, the "peace" mantra slowly became an advertising strapline at the bottom of increasingly glossy flyers for increasingly expensive raves. Then it was replaced by corporate sponsorship logos - beer, spirits, jeans, even cigarettes. No one noticed, no one cared.

Except, that is, if you live in Northern Ireland, where dance music has done more to break down the sectarian divide than any politician. No, seriously. The people here genuinely believe it. A generation that has grown up knowing nothing but the Troubles has made an active choice to dance together, Protestant and Catholic side-by-side, weekend in, weekend out. The terrorists have tried to stop them - bouncers have been executed and clubs firebombed. The terrorists have failed. Five years after the dance scene took hold, a year after the Good Friday Agreement, a bunch of clubbers have rewritten all the rules.

Last Saturday Roger Sanchez flew in from New York to DJ at Lush! in Portrush. About 1,200 clubbers from all over the province turned up to hear him. The girls wore spaghetti-strapped dresses and shiny heels while the boys danced in dark slacks and bright, untucked shirts. It could have been any club anywhere in Britain. Nothing out of the ordinary. Normal even. But this is Northern Ireland we're talking about here, so there's a story to be told.

In the Seventies the only place open in Belfast after 10pm was the Europa Hotel. Saturday night fever for the vast majority was getting hammered down the local, Protestant and Catholic divided. The few occasions the two met, at football matches and marches, the riot police were on hand to separate them forcefully.

In 1988, as the mainland embarked on the second Summer of Love, there was still very little to do after dark in Belfast, when the shops closed and the bollards went up. If you did get past the road blocks the discotheques were a war zone - Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other, pissed up, looking for a fight. Five years later the exact same lads were sweating like crazy, tops off, dancing together - even smiling and hugging each other. Northern Ireland discovered Ecstasy and nothing was ever the same again. It really wasn't, even on Monday when the come-down kicked in.

When local DJ David Holmes opened Sugar Sweet in Belfast in 1991 no one had any idea how big a deal it would be. Years of hearing about the rave explosion in the newspapers, magazines, television and from friends away at university on the mainland left the youth of the Six Counties under no illusion: they wanted some of it, badly. But the real breakthrough came when the predominately working-class Happy Hardcore dance scene kicked off in fields and warehouses out of town. Able to travel away from their communities to neutral territory, many Protestants and Catholics mixed socially for the first time. They discovered they had far more in common than they had been led to believe.

It didn't stop there. Clubs opened in predominately Catholic areas and Protestants travelled hours by car and coach to go raving - and vice versa. Gary Tinsdale comes from a staunchly loyalist background and "would never have dreamt of going into a Catholic area". That was until The Point nightclub opened in Donegal. He just had to go and see what the fuss was about. Although he was a little nervous, he says he was "welcomed with open arms". He became the resident DJ at the club - "something unheard of before". Today he says his more open-minded attitude remains. Gary's girlfriend is Catholic. They met, naturally, in a club.

Without the remotest hint of hyperbole Judith Farrell, the editor of local music magazine Baseline, says the dance scene has had a "massive and direct" effect on the peace process: "This is a completely new generation and they've had enough of the Troubles. We're sick to the back teeth of it. We're much more willing to take a different standpoint than our parents and the dance scene has played a huge part in that."

The change has been far more dramatic than a bit of cross-community clubbing. As the dance scene took off the youth vote for the DUP and Sinn Fein fell off. Far more importantly, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of fresh-faced 18-year olds willing to sign up with the paramilitaries fell away too.

The decisive shift came when the paramilitaries got involved in the lucrative drugs trade. Here's a joke currently doing the local rounds: How do spot a terrorist? Answer: He's the one in the Ralph Lauren shirt and Timberland boots. Like all good gags there's an astute and cutting observation within the generalisation. When dance music first arrived in the province the paramilitaries were uniformly against drugs. Small time dealers were routinely robbed and punishment beatings doled out left, right and centre. The dealer's stash of drugs invariably ended up in the Maze, where Friday night quickly became rave night - the local radio station received a barrage of requests for rave anthems from within the prison.

In 1993 terrorists on both sides decided the drugs trade was far too lucrative for them not to be running the show. They abandoned their balaclavas in favour of the designer shirts and Timberlands. The effect on their standing amongst the youth in the community was devastating. A long-time clubber who grew up on a well-known road in Belfast explains: "For years kids were brought up to respect `Johnny down the road' (the paramilitaries) because he was fighting for his country. Surrounded by f----ing murals, closed away in your own community, it was very easy to fall for it all. But then you go down the clubs and Johnny's selling drugs. More to the point, his mates are knee-capping your friends because they won't give him a cut or they're buying from the wrong suppliers. Let's just say it opened a lot of people's eyes."

The terrorists further damaged their standing when "their war" threatened to close the nightclubs. On 27 December 1997, terrorists opened fire outside the Area 51 club in the Glengannon Hotel in Dungannon. They indiscriminately fired more than 40 rounds, killing one doorman and seriously injuring two others. The high-velocity bullets penetrated windows, doors and walls. A 14-year-old glass collector was also hit, although he was inside the club at the time. He no longer has the use of his left arm. Two weeks later gunmen murdered a doorman at Space in Talbot Street, Belfast. Two weeks after that, bombers targeted The River Club in Enniskillen. Luckily the attack came before the doors had opened.

Letters from clubbers poured into Baseline magazine condemning the men of violence. The terrorists would not be allowed to wreck the party, they vowed. In August the magazine organised its first Planet Love event. It was a huge success, drawing clubbers from all over the province. On 1 May under the banner of "Peace, Love and Reconciliation", the second Planet Love is expected to attract 12,000 people and will last all night - a licensing first for the authorities.

Meanwhile, back at Lush! in Portrush it's Saturday night as normal. Ecstasy culture has permeated into the furthest reaches of Northern Ireland. Everyone knows someone who can get pills, whizz, hash, tabs. There's no need to score off the Provos or UVF in shady corners anymore. The terrorists are still taking their cut, mind, just further up the chain. In the club it's all about one thing - girl meets boy and boy meets girl.

At the bar there's a girl and boy kissing over a can of Harp lager. They met the week before at the Lush! third birthday party. She's from Londonderry and Catholic. He's from Belfast and Protestant. Her Da definitely wouldn't understand, she says. But, she adds, he doesn't need to know, does he? They love coming to Portrush because "it's away from it all". (The seaside resort has always traditionally been removed from the Troubles.)

She's not sure about him though. No, not because he's a Proddy, she laughs. She leans over and whispers, "My friends think he's a bit of ladies' man." Normal fears on a normal Saturday night. And that's a story.