Across Ulster's great divide: Children grow up fast in Sinn Fein stronghold

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EILEEN stands fidgeting by the window. It is getting dark and her son Anthony, nine, just back from school, is outside somewhere, playing.

The night before, IRA gunmen opened fire on the police station up the road. Eileen, 36, and her husband Tony, 31, on the way to the local chip shop, had to run for cover. 'You're never sure whether you are running into or away from the fire,' Eileen says.

That week there had been two attacks on the Army barracks, just 100 yards from her front door. In the second, three young children in the house across the road, which backs on to the barracks, were showered with glass when their kitchen window blew in.

In the small living room of their three-bedroomed council house in Ballymurphy, Roslyn, six, Eileen and Tony's youngest, is wide-eyed as she tells the story. 'The little girl is only two and all the glass fell on top of her,' she says. Then she giggles, like it is all a game.

Hardly surprising that Eileen likes her children in before dark; amazing that she lets them out at all. Outside more than 30 soldiers are starting their evening patrol of the staunchly republican West Belfast housing estate as the radio reports that a colleague has been shot dead in Armagh.

Occasionally fresh-faced boys, hardly old enough to have driving licences, pass the front window, guns clasped across their chests. While they nervously walk in the drizzle followed by two armoured vans, kids queue for sweeties at the mobile van. A huge tricolour flutters defiantly in the distance, over neighbouring Catholic Springhill. No one seems to notice the soldiers.

Inside, Ashling, 10, fair like her little sister, is displaying precocious wisdom. 'If there's a ceasefire you know the shooting will begin the day it ends.'

Eileen tries to raise her children to respect individual Protestants. It is quite a change of heart for a woman who rioted in the early 1970s. 'I was young then. It was the time of internment and the hunger strikes. Everything - jobs, housing - seemed tipped in favour of Protestants. We all rioted then. You thought you were doing something to help your community.'

Now Eileen runs a mothers and toddlers group and lobbies on housing. 'It's the same motivation really, wanting to make things better.' She also runs a weekly group for Protestant and Catholic women. 'Protestant paramilitaries warn off any Protestants who come here. They've even threatened a wee pensioner who comes here to tell fortunes.'

Convincing your children that 'they' are not any different from 'us' is difficult in this Sinn Fein stronghold. The party's president, Gerry Adams, was raised in Ballymurphy - 'a quiet fella, always reading' - and his sister still lives there.

Locals hate the Springmartin Protestants, behind the high fence on the hill, for voting tactically to oust Mr Adams as an MP. In Eileen's street alone, five families have lost sons and fathers to Protestant paramilitaries.

Children rarely come into contact with the 'other'. It is 25 years since Ballymurphy's Protestant minority fled. Eileen says Ian Paisley, leader of the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party, came up with removal vans in the middle of the night and oversaw a wholesale evacuation.

Eileen does not want her children to become involved in violence but the days when the community fought pitched battles with the Army and the police are now part of local folklore.

Ashling, Anthony and Roslyn are learning how their parents, at their age, were evacuated to the Free State in the dead of night when 'war' broke out in 1969; how the children were anointed by priests before they left and the lights in the trains which ferried them South were switched off as they passed through Protestant areas.

They know the bin-banging in the July marches marks the way women warned that soldiers were advancing on the community. They know their granddad had to go to England to look for work when intimidation forced him out of his job in the shipyards. And they can tell you about Bow the Dog, one-time mascot of the Ballymurphy rioters, who decided to 'fetch' a nail bomb pitched at the Army barracks, sending the whole community into retreat. Bow was blown up and buried a hero, wrapped in an Irish tricolour. The whole community is said to have turned out for the funeral.

Eileen was not raised in a republican home but it was 'staunchly Catholic'. Remembrance cards for dead relatives sit in the cabinet alongside a picture of Ashling in her first communion dress.

She and Tony want their children to develop a strong sense of their Catholic faith. It is politics not religion that is the problem, they insist. The whole family attends Sunday Mass and Ashling goes to weekly prayer group. Eileen says it will be OK if Ashling marries a Protestant as long as it is in a Catholic church.

Ashling's school, St Bernadette's Girls Primary, just a few minutes' walk away, makes a monthly attempt to bridge the religious divide.

'Stathmillis school comes down and we let them talk to us about their religion,' Ashling says. 'The main difference is they don't believe in Our Lady. But they are not really any different from us.'

Huge green railings surround the school. A statue of St Bernadette, along with Jesus and the Virgin Mary, greets visitors at the door.

At the Christmas fete for school funds, hundreds of little girls in neat blue uniforms are queuing for Santa. The hall is full of women. There is almost 90 per cent unemployment in the area but only two fathers, other than Tony, have turned up. Even Tony does not stay long. Schools, like community work and reconciliation, it seems, are women's work, not men's. 'It's easier for women to go out of the community,' Tony claims. 'It is not usually women who get shot.' In the classroom- turned-coffee- bar, Eileen and her neighbours are discussing how much weight Bernie's new baby has gained. Bernie's little boy is also with her. He should be at school in Poleglass, a neighbouring Catholic community. 'I had to go up and collect him because there was a 1,000lb bomb planted near the school,' she says.

'Bastards,' her friend spits. 'The loyalists have been threatening to plant a big one in the middle of a Catholic area.' Later, it emerges that the bomb, planted in two wheely-bins, was the result of a botched IRA ambush.

The chain-smoking continues at Eileen's mothers and toddlers group. The premises are bleak. The building's front- door window is smashed. The Army recently raided the place on a 'tip-off' about an arms stash. They found nothing. Eileen is waiting for the Army to pay for replacement glass.

At the meeting Cathy, who runs schemes for local children, complains that probation officers are insisting on lists of names of kids in trouble before handing out funding. 'I'm hardly going to give them names,' she says. 'It would stop kids coming along. I know. My own son used to be the biggest joyrider in west Belfast.' The women reckon that more than 100 teenagers - mainly joyriders - have been exiled from the area in the past year by the IRA. They have gone to mainland Britain or the South. 'That's why you have so many homeless on the streets in London,' Eileen says. 'The idea is to make them homesick and the family has to negotiate with the Ra to get them back.'

Exile is the soft option. Until a couple of years ago, such teenagers were knee-capped. Some of the women present were in the community delegation which complained to the IRA about the brutality. 'They were losing support,' one says. 'They had to listen.'

When the talk turns to Protestants, the messages are mixed. Marion remembers the first job she applied for in a city-centre store. 'They advertised that Catholics need not apply. We have come a long way since then but things still aren't equal.'

The few Protestants in Ballymurphy, married to Catholics, are accepted but treated with suspicion. 'That one didn't speak for days leading up to the 12th of July,' says a neighbour scathingly, referring to the Protestants' chief marching day. 'She's quick enough to chat and borrow the rest of the year.'

Eileen and Tony were born in Ballymurphy just two streets apart. Between them they have 20 brothers and sisters, most of whom still live in the area. Tony has not worked for 10 years: 'If I had known that the Troubles would have gone on so long I would have left.' He still sells the republican newspaper but neither want a united Ireland 'at any price'. 'I would settle for peace in any form,' Eileen says.

(Photograph omitted)