Across Ulster's great divide: Fences keep family 'safe' in an abnormal existence

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The Independent Online
THE LIVING room is festooned with Christmas decorations, but a large, formal family photograph above the fireplace still dominates. From the ornate frame, Charlie Butler, 40, thick-set and moustached, beams down, flanked by his wife, Linda, and surrounded by his brood of four boys and a girl.

Mid-morning Saturday, and Ian, 17, the Butlers' third- eldest, has just surfaced, shirtless and looking for socks. He has timed it well. For hours, Ryan, four, 'spoiled rotten' due to the age gap between him and his siblings, has tormented his parents and his brother, Glen, 14, with a tuneless rendition of 'Jingle Bells'. Stalking about in the bright blue wellies he refuses to take off, he now wants someone to take him to see the Gladiators, the ITV stars appearing at a city centre store.

The three-bedroomed council house is always busy. Only the Butlers' daughter has left home, and she has moved no further than around the corner. All but one of Charlie's nine sisters and four brothers live locally, as do Linda's two brothers.

The Butlers, like previous generations, have lived out their days on the Shankill, the tiny sectarian homeland to west Belfast's Protestants. The ordinariness of the domestic scene is mere veneer. 'That is where the Shankill Butchers dumped their victims,' says Charlie, matter-of-factly, pointing from his back garden on the Glencairn estate, at the top end of the Shankill Road.

In the early 1970s, terrorism came closer to home when Charlie's uncle was shot dead by loyalist terrorists. They apologised later; an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Seven weeks ago, the Butlers were devastated by an IRA attack when Charlie's niece, Evelyn, her husband and her seven-year-old daughter were killed in the Shankill bomb. Evelyn's mum - also Evelyn - and her husband Bobby, who live next door, now care for their two surviving grandchildren - Lauren, four months, and Darren, nine.

Over coffee, Lauren, brought through by her grandmother, is passed from adult to adoring adult. Beautiful and chubby in pink, she is blessedly unaware of the tragedy. But Evelyn says Darren is 'still very confused'. He used to live just a few doors away. The house is already re-let but he wanders over hoping his mum will turn up.

'We don't hold any bitterness towards ordinary Catholics,' Evelyn says. 'We got so many cards from priests, nuns and Catholic people. That helped.'

Charlie, a taxi driver, dragged the bodies of his niece and her child from the wreckage but did not find out who they were until formal identification hours later. He and Bobby have just recently returned to work.

Charlie has always told Glen that Catholics are no different. He feels he needs to repeat the message now. But the boy has to take his father's word for it. From his house, the high railings which separate Glencairn from the Catholics in neighbouring Ligoniel are clearly visible. They keep Glencairn Catholic-free. Glen travels to Britain and Europe for Glasgow Rangers games 20 times a year, but he has never crossed the divide to make a Catholic friend. He says that does not concern him.

His father has perhaps five Catholic friends, but they seldom visit the Butlers because of fear of sectarian attack. 'One came up with a card and flowers on the day of the funerals. I had to phone him next day and chew the face off him because anything could have happened to him.'

Charlie may wish the fences between estates were not there, but he believes they 'keep us safe'. The fences shadow every aspect of the Butlers' lives, ensuring every problem is described in Catholic-Protestant terms. Charlie complains that Glencairn, built 18 years ago 'to take us out of the ghettos', has no facilities. He claims Catholic estates are better served and that 'chain stores descriminate against Protestants by not setting up here'.

Linda is vociferous about Glencairn's single shop and a chippie. 'The Catholic areas have cheaper stores and our food bills are much more expensive.'

There are no shopping trips across the divide. Tomorrow is one of the boys' birthdays, but Linda's search for a card is confined to the Shankill Road or the city centre. 'It is too dangerous,' says Charlie. 'The IRA has come into Catholic stores, closed them and told Protestants to leave. I used to drive a lot of people over there but not anymore.'

If the other side's terrorists don't get you, your own will oblige. The Glencairn's post office was recently closed after a robbery by loyalist gunmen.

After dropping Linda off on the Shankill Road, Charlie calls at the taxi office where the female controller is holed up behind a steel-reinforced door and one-way glass. The door is bullet-proof, but not the window. 'Staff are expendable but doors aren't,' he jokes.

The controller only allows drivers to drop off in Catholic areas if the customers are regulars. And the drivers have been hijacked by loyalist paramilitaries 22 times this year.

Later, Charlie bumps into a man who used to drive for the company. Now he makes the tea. 'When someone puts a gun in your mouth, it changes you. His nerves are shattered.'

Charlie claims he would 'break his sons' legs' to keep them away from paramilitaries. But on the Shankill, keeping your kids pure is not easy.

Halfway down the busy street, a Presbyterian preacher whom Ian Paisley might envy is bawling out his redemption message. A little further up, the villains and tormentors of the Catholic community are eulogised in the window of the Shankill Historical Society shop. 'The Ballad of Michael Stone' is available on cassette, and the 'B Specials' are commemorated in large plaques.

The street is busy and occasionally shoppers glance over at the gap where Frizzell's fish shop, destroyed by the IRA bomb, used to be. Locals say there used to be more than 50 pubs on or just off the Shankill Road. Terrorism and bombings have closed most. The few that remain are entered through ugly security cages.

The symbols of Protestantism are everywhere in an area where symbols are everything. You can't stray far from the Shankill without running into hostile territory. Apart from the main 'peace line' dividing it from the Falls, there are a multitude of smaller lines between the scattered settlements which house the two tribes.

'Here it really does pay to be streetwise,' Charlie says. 'If I did end up in a Catholic area and my car broke down, I would just abandon it and head on out.'

The Linfield football supporters' club is where the Butlers do their socialising. With loyalist paramilitaries frequenting the few pubs left on the Shankill, the Linfield, the men say, is a place where 'you get away from the nonsense'. They are proud that two Catholics play for their team, but admit that the two only socialise at the club on special occasions. 'When they win a cup or something.'

That Protestants feel increasingly hard done-by becomes obvious. Alfie, a scaffolder, works for a firm with 50 Catholic and four Protestant workers. He may soon lose his job and is convinced 'fair employment' legislation now gives Catholics the edge in the job market.

Charlie denies Catholics suffered discrimination in the 1960s. 'When they complain they are talking about events that took place 50 to 100 years ago.' The notion that Catholics milk the system they despise pervades - Charlie snaps that while Catholics complain, they are still quick to take British benefits.

More luxurious than many working-class clubs, a night at the Linfield still offers the traditional working-class fare of bingo, cabaret, pool and cheap booze.

Tonight the usual band has called off but a country and western group is standing in. The Butlers and their friends always sit at the same top corner table. A colleague of Charlie's is with a young British soldier who is dating a girl from the Shankill. He is sure that the Army could clean up the trouble in a day if given 'free rein'. The young barmaid suggests they start with the 'Fenian bastards' who left a bomb under a car belonging to her brother-in-law, a member of the security forces, the previous night.

One of Charlie's nephews is in town drinking with Catholic and Protestant friends, but his mother, Barbara, 41, feels 'safe' at the Linfield. She has nothing against Catholics - 'they've suffered as well' - but 'they started it and it was them who brought the soldiers in'. 'Not all Catholics want a united Ireland,' she says. 'Those that vote Sinn Fein should move south. I am British, not Irish. I was brought up in the British tradition, to stand for the Queen and all that. If they force a united Ireland, what about all those people who have died to keep Northern Ireland British? They are going to ask, 'What was it all for?' I won't be out on the streets, but there are plenty who will.'

Charlie was 16, living midway down a short road which once linked the Shankill and the Falls, when the Troubles began. The Catholic boys he played with quickly assembled on their side of the barricades, he on his. 'They were on their side throwing stones, I was on mine. I never saw them again.'

His voice is tinged with regret. 'We go on holiday with Northern Irish Catholics and we get on fine but then we come back here. We don't understand it. How can we expect other people to?

'Living here is like being in the Crumlin Road jail. The only difference is that you get to walk about a bit more. I want my kids to know more than this small area. If I had known it would last 25 years I would have left. But now I have all my family here. '

(Photograph omitted)