In my home town, even peace is uneasy

It's almost a year since the ceasefire, so why should a stroll down the Falls Road make a man sweat?
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The Independent Online
The taxi driver says, sure, didn't I know there's more than one route into Belfast nowadays. He's been talking from the moment we pulled away from Aldergrove airport: how the checkpoint on the way up is gone, so the journey is quicker ("Those bastards, they'd stop you for nuthin' "), how his daughter is dating a Catholic ("It's doing her Ma's head in"), how the tourists have been flooding back since peace broke out a year ago this week: "There's Germans, French andYanks. Them Yanks spend the money. It's good for the economy. All the papers say the economy's picking up."

Anyhow, do I want to go the auld Antrim way or on to the M2? Less traffic, but not as easy on the eye. And if I'm headed for the Shankill Road, why hadn't I used the new airport, right in the heart of the city? Ach, I was in for some surprises.

Looking out of the window as hedges and fields fly by (we're going the old Antrim way): no soldiers, no RUC, no guns, no police vans, no armoured vehicles ... and already, this inexplicable, nagging feeling of no past. This is the present and I'm heading home to the Shankill. Back to childhood, back to basics, back for the first time since - big breath - "normality" returned.

Only it doesn't seem much like home. Home is burning buses, rubber bullets, riots, barbed-wire fences, murder down dark alleyways, no-go areas, sirens wailing, children screaming. Home is noise. I flashback to the early Seventies, to the IRA bombing of the Four Step Inn, at the top of the Shankill Road, and what I remember most is not the torn limbs or the smell of blood but the initial explosion ripping the air, the wail of the ambulances, the moans and groans of the injured and dying; a wall of sound.

But with peace has come quiet: the Shankill on a Saturday lunchtime no longer seethes. It used to be hectic, packed with housewives out "doing their messages", their husbands rushing off to lay bets and grab an early jar. It used to be a lifeline. Now it's an empty artery.

Shopfronts are boarded, others lie derelict, almost all are shabby. The only surprises are the repainted Diamond bar, once spit and sawdust and peeling paint, today green and beige and proclaiming itself a "wine importer", and the occasional cafe with white plastic tables and seats outside; mock cosmopolitan, incongruously European. Urban decay plus up-market aspirations equals transition.

"Ach, I know love," says Elisie, who has lived "aroundabouts" for the past 30 years. She puts her shopping bags down. "They keep talking community that, community this, and look." She rolls her eyes towards the Lower Shankill Residents Estate Association office. The estate it represents is a mess. "Some peace dividend." She laughs.

Where is everyone, then? "Down the town. Everyone goes down the town for their messages now. Sure, they don't think they'll be blown up. They feel safe." She nods, indicating the bottom of the road, at Peters Hill: "Especially since Divis Flats got knocked down." Divis Flats are - no, were - a Catholic stronghold, famous for their political radicalism and snipers. My heart would pound every time I had to walk by. Gone? "There's old people's homes there now," Elisie says. She lifts her bags. "You've been across the water for a wee while, haven't you." It's not a question.

Down the town: through Royal Avenue, into Belfast city centre, past a billboard that asks, "Wouldn't it be great if it was always like this?" A command follows: "Time to look on the bright side."

The security barriers have been dismantled. Traffic flows freely. You aren't stopped and searched going into the shops and supermarkets; there are cool, air-conditioned white-on-white malls, such as Castle Court, and - this dislocates me in a way words cannot adequately describe - street performers. Clowns, brass bands, men juggling knives instead of men pointing pistols. Military garb has been discarded for the uniforms of (self-conscious) fun. The atmosphere is ... Ordinary. Odd. Oddly ordinary. Something.

Accents are all around. Scottish, Spanish, even Southern Irish (the woman behind the counter at Thorntons says that "at Christmas you could have sworn you were working in the middle of Dublin"). Bob, however, is one of those economy-enhancing Yanks "with Irish roots". He and his wife, Nancy, are on the third day of their vacation, and shopping for souvenirs in a shiny, new, anonymous mall off the Cornmarket: a home from home.

Bob says that once the ceasefire was announced, they were talking to their travel agent. "Now, I don't know what it was like before," he intones, "but what I can tell you is that the people are very friendly, very friendly." Nancy agrees: "I find it hard to believe that these lovely people were killing one another, I do. We love it here, don't we Bob?" Bob breezes on. "It's down-to-earth. Not at all like the news. The bombs and IRA and everything. We'll be telling our friends to come visit. If the peace lasts." Behind them, children cluster around a fountain and sluggishly, reluctantly, toss in coins. One tot has had enough. She turns to - and on - her mother and shrieks, "But I don't want to make a wish."

Talking to the natives, a contradiction emerges. At first, everyone spoke about the peace as they did the weather; incessantly. Now it's taken for granted, while thoroughly distrusted. Here today, gone as soon as your back's turned. "I hope it'll last," says Bridget, up from Bangor for the day. "But nobody knows. The weapons are still out there, and it's not as if we all love one another all of a sudden, because we don't. That'll take time. A long time. I don't care what you are or who you are, but there are those who do. They have the guns, get what I'm saying? If they don't get what they want, they could be on the streets tomorrow." Twenty- five years of violence makes trust hard, faith almost impossible, no matter the received wisdom and PR gloss. No one I speak to thinks they had reached a destination, but they're grateful for what one woman calls, with a shrug, "the pit stop".

"You ones over in England," gripes Michael, 28 and angry, "you think it's over bar the shouting. It's under the surface. You can't come down the town on a Saturday night, because of gangs from the Falls. They wait outside clubs for people. There are fights and beatings. The police don't want to know. We're not supposed to have sectarian conflict any more. It's there. It's just ignored."

He has a point. The marching season, always tense, has been particularly provocative this year, and if people aren't being damaged, property is (classic displacement). Eighteen Orange halls have been either attacked, damaged or burnt down. Buildings owned or operated by the Gaelic Athletic Association have suffered similar reprisals; Catholic chapels, too. The local press aren't exactly playing this down, but VJ pieces on how Catholic and Protestant worked together during the Second World War are given greater prominence. The feel-good factor feels ... not exactly forced, not exactly desperate. It's more complex than that. More ... "But I don't want to wish."

Maybe the young find acceptance of tomorrow easier. Maybe their parents' prejudices have been rejected. Maybe the young have hope, mix more. They seem to at the Manhattan, a popular disco at the far end of Shaftesbury Avenue. Kelly is Catholic and Ian is Protestant and above the beat they conduct their own love duet. They've been "seeing one another" for close to a year - "nearly as long as the ceasefire", Kelly proudly points out.

But Ian wouldn't dream of "going up the Falls Road" to collect Kelly. Kelly would not think of casually popping over to the Shankill. The tribes still stick to their reservations. The Manhattan is considered "neutral", as is most of the area around Queen's University and the student quarter. No way would Kelly visit Ian at his house. For nothing. It would be asking for "a good hiding" or worse. It would be mad. "Except for drugs." Drugs? "Bumbles. Bumble bees. E. Drugs are cheaper on the Shankill. I might go for the drugs. They're murderous expensive on the Falls. The UDA must get them cheaper." "Cheaper than the IRA," Ian says. It's perilously close to a boast; my paramilitary organisation deals better than your paramilitary organisation. "Sure, they're hypocritical old bastards, the lot of them," Kelly sneers. "We hate them. They'll all be out of jobs soon enough." Ian asks her if she'd like a Malibu. Kelly says she'd prefer something stronger.

I haven't seen the Falls Road in more than two decades. There was a fish 'n'chip shop there that my family loved, and it was a treat to drive over on a Sunday evening and binge on the deep-fried carbohydrate that remains the staple of the Irish working-class diet. When the Troubles revved into fourth gear we stopped going, and I knew, in a manner even tear gas couldn't teach me, that something serious was happening.

I start at Castle Street, sweating from the heat ... and fear. I know Unity Flats were demolished long ago, but their absence is disconcerting. I'm primed to see the past, unprepared for the present, though the contemporary Falls duplicates the current Shankill right down to the last loose brick and stretches of wasteland. And as I walk, limbs shuffling awkwardly, memory floods back, like in a B-movie, diluting, if not defeating, the myth that's been hanging around my head.

Here's the Falls Road Library, so much better stocked - and well-mannered - than its Shankill equivalent. I used to spend hours there. And the park and the swimming-pool complex; pleasure, not pain, I'm thinking. Until I recall that two soldiers died in a booby-trap explosion at the pool. Absurdly, I quicken my pace.

The Royal Victoria Hospital. I was taken here when I fell - or was pushed - off a bus after visiting my maternal grandmother's grave at the City Cemetery. Then I thought my parents' nervous bedside manner was for me. Now I wonder if being on the Falls Road (my father had recently joined this local association called the UDA) was the cause of their jumpiness. I keep walking.

Top of the Falls, Anderson Town Road, Conely House, Sinn Fein headquarters. Or, at least, where the bulk of the press releases issue from. It is semi-detached, probably Victorian, nothing special - until you compare it with the terraced horrors that make up the bulk of Belfast housing. Then there are the security cameras, the electronically locked gates, the grilles on the windows. It is something ordinary made extraordinary through ugliness, and, in that sense, it is the past 25 years in mortar. I stand for a while, but not too long, because this isn't what I was looking for.

My plane leaves early on Monday morning. I can't sleep. Belfast is attempting to be humdrum and has never been so alien. Nothing is familiar any more. Then I hear a sound I instantly recognise: a helicopter overhead, rotor blades revolving in the dark. Once heard, never forgotten. It circles above, a metal angel, looking for trouble that isn't there. I listen, enchanted and soothed, and finally drift away.