An afternoon walk up the Falls and down the Shankill: one city but worlds apart

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY I walked up the Falls and down the Shankill - up Belfast's main Catholic thoroughfare and down its Protestant twin.

I had been here often enough before in the past half century - as a boy, as a reporter in Belfast and London - and often sadly: the Falls is the city's main coffin route, two vast cemeteries lie at the end of it, and before the Troubles, when natural causes - as opposed to political or sectarian - prompted most of the funeral processions, I sometimes walked it with next-of-kin.

Yesterday's walk should have had a nice circularity, because the roads run roughly parallel, at least until the Shankill sweeps northward into the dark-green Black Mountain. But all the streets linking the upper Falls with the Shankill are blocked by a 'peace line' (in reality, a wall to prevent Protestants and Catholics murdering one another), so I had to drive up the Shankill Road before I could walk down it.

It rained as I went up the Falls, and brightened a bit as I went down the Shankill. The last was a deceptive omen. Halfway up the Falls, a pale young man who had popped out for a newspaper said: 'The Protestants will be defeated if they carry out sectarian killings. They don't have as many volunteers as us, and they're not as well armed.' Halfway down the Shankill, William Kennedy, an alert octagenarian, grabbed my arm and shook it urgently. 'I think there will be civil war,' he said. 'No-one can stop it. It's an awful thing for my seven great grand-children to face.'

I first saw violence on the Falls in 1964: the Divis Street riot against the removal by police of an Irish tricolour from a Sinn Fein office window. It was one of the milestones on the road to the Troubles five years later. Then, most of the houses and shops along the Falls were old and in serious disrepair, and most of the people in them poor and, by and large, outside a political process maintained by the Unionist one-party statelet. It wasn't really much better on the Shankill, where the working class accepted deprivation, provided it was girded by the red white and blue.

Today there are new, neat houses on both roads, fronted by communal patches of grass, shrubbery and weeds where waste paper and empty beer cans accumulate. In one of these on the Falls, I found a drunk lying on a nettle bed, snoring at the sky. A young man passing by helped him to his feet. 'That's no place to sleep it off,' the good Samaritan said, before adding to me: 'He won't have felt the nettles stinging him.' Nearby, in a sweet shop, I asked what had happened to the flax mill I remembered across the road. The shop-owner said: 'It was burnt down in the Sixties. I know, because I helped burn it.'

The mill site is now occupied by the Twin Spires shopping centre; beyond that is the Falls Baths, now renamed 'Swim Centre' and the Sinn Fein offices where Gerry Adams told me in 1990: 'I believe the British Government will have a meeting or meetings with people like myself, and that this will be the process by which there will be achieved a total demilitarisation here.'

Yesterday, four armoured vehicles, one police and three army, swept past. The soldiers' faces showed none of the tension one would have seen a week ago. Minutes later, as I was talking to Thomas Millar, an elderly pensioner, more soldiers went by on foot. One nodded at my companion, who said 'Hello there, squire]' He explained to me: 'You only get nice if you give nice.'

His face suddenly froze. Two men in their twenties swayed past us with liquor bottles and turned a corner. 'They're bad,' Mr Millar said. 'The one on the left has been knee-capped twice for robbing old people around here. The other fellow is heading for the same. Some people here are the lowest of the low. Their kids are on Strongbow (cider) and sniffing glue. The end of the Troubles won't change them - if the end really comes, which I doubt. But you pray for peace.'

The immediate ceasefire euphoria seemed to have deserted the place. It was the Protestant Shankill, oddly enough, that gave off the more cheerful spirit. There an Orange band contest had attracted loyalists from Liverpool and Glasgow to bang their drums and blow their fifes. Men swigged from beer bottles and shouted 'No surrender'. And a spectator dashed into the road among the marching feet shouting 'Shoot the bastards' - meaning the folk on the Falls, in their other world.