Northern Ireland: The Belfast that's not on TV: Steve Boggan finds Ulster's capital a smart, modern city. Yet 25 years of death and terror cannot be hidden easily

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A MIST from Belfast Lough is smothering the city centre like wet cladding. Early shoppers bow their heads as if weighed down by the drizzle, while soldiers train rifles on them, taking imaginary potshots at imaginary terrorists. Here in Royal Avenue you find a clean, bright, modern street lined with immaculate shops and smart street furniture, roadside accoutrements built to last.

This is the Belfast you do not see on your television screens - the scale of the place, the sense of space and smartness, are withheld in favour of images of death amid urban poverty and decay, of roadside bodies under bloodstained sheets.

Along Royal Avenue are pristine buildings, new and old, housing Debenhams, Gap and Laura Ashley. Along other streets in the centre, one of the grandest in Britain, are Marks & Spencer, Next, Burton, Saxone, all the names you see in other cities, names you might have thought had been frightened off.

The corrugated walls and turnstiles installed 10 years ago have gone. Their arrival was a terrorist success; their removal was probably missed by almost everyone outside the province.

Try word association: Belfast - what do you see?

A population with the highest disposable income in the UK, a city almost untouched by recession, a place where pounds 1bn has been spent replacing old housing with new, where pounds 130m is being spent on a vast harbourside leisure, conference and commercial complex?

No, you see a place where 3,000 people have died horribly in sectarian violence, a place with pockets of unemployment as high as 80 per cent, a city where talk of peace is treated with derision.

On the corner of Royal Avenue and Castle Place, a middle-aged man is handing out leaflets asking: 'Eternity, where?'.

Shoppers ignore him. The sense of normality is complete, until you realise that a soldier is pointing a gun at you.

You walk north along Royal Avenue and North Street towards Peter's Hill. Already, before this becomes Shankill Road, the loyalist murals begin. Paramilitary images, Unionist colours, emblems, slogans, similar in so many respects to the republican murals you will see on the Falls Road and New Lodge. About half a mile further up the Shankill is the site on which Desmond Frizzell's chip shop stood until it was blown up two weeks ago. All that remains is a Hymac digger, three upturned dustbins and a few bunches of flowers.

A couple of doors down, a shrine to the victims has been created inside Shankill Methodist Church. Thousands of cards and letters are on display. A steady stream of people pass in silence, reading the messages and crying.

There is a telegram from Parma in Italy and flowers from the Mayor of Warrington, the scene of another atrocity. There are many messages from Catholics. One says simply: 'I am a Catholic from the Ardoyne. Please forgive me. I am sorry.'

Another, from a girl in France, refers to Michelle Baird, at seven the youngest victim: 'Help me to understand. I would like to know why she died.'

'Everyone is absolutely terrified,' says one of the women at the shrine. 'Each night I lock all my doors and windows and I don't answer the door unless I know who's there. If I'm woken by someone breaking into a car, I'll go back to bed. I stay quiet and keep my head down.'

Turning eastwards, you walk towards Northumberland Street, a heavily guarded link between the Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. Here, nervous soldiers with rifles cover RUC officers at a vehicle checkpoint. The squaddies who don't point their weapons at you disarm you with public-relations smiles. You don't smile back; someone might be watching.

On the face of it, the Falls and the Shankill are like so many minor arterial routes into so many similar cities. Shops and houses jockey for position with bars and open spaces. There is the Sinn Fein press centre, heavily fortified since a gunman killed two republicans there. And there is the butcher's shop that once belonged to Danny McCann, one of the IRA members killed by the SAS in Gibraltar.

Covering the gable of the office is a mural depicting a smiling Bobby Sands, best- known of the modern hunger- strikers. 'Join Sinn Fein,' it says.

Farther south-west, past the Royal Victoria Hospital and the City Cemetery, which Protestants are afraid to visit, is Milltown Cemetery. Here is the IRA plot where loyalist Michael Stone murdered three during the burial of those killed in Gibraltar. Names that ring bells leap out from shiny black memorial stones: Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell, James McDade.

There is a muddy bootprint across the names of Farrell, McCann and Savage, and it is difficult to discount local opinion that such prints, which appear regularly, would resemble the soles of British Army footwear.

To the north is the council ward from which SDLP member Brian Feeney resigned earlier this year because of in- fighting within the city council.

Driving through the gap in a peace line dividing Oldpark Protestants from Catholics - a 15ft-high yellow wall which he calls an 'interface' - he says: 'This place is like a scene from Apocalypse Now. It used to be a pleasant place to live, where people got on. Look at it now.'

Houses on either side are boarded up, many derelict, the whole community broken in two by the wall.

On a street that used to be called Roe Street, but which now has no name, one house is left on the Catholic side, saved from missiles by an extra 8ft of mesh above the wall. The pensioners who live there, Bernard and Sue Murphy, are afraid that Protestants will think they are making a defiant gesture by staying behind. But they aren't. They are stuck there because they were offered only pounds 3,000 to get out. Every day, they hide behind the grilles that cover their windows.

There is another peace line, two 15ft walls and 50 yards of no man's land, separating Oldpark Avenue and the Protestant Torrens area. Two women who don't know each other live opposite and perhaps 80 yards apart. Their feelings are remarkably similar.

On the Catholic side is Doreen Toolan, 55, mother of six and grandmother of four-year- old Terrie Louise. She has lived here since her husband, Terrence, was shot dead by British soldiers in 1972. She is at pains to say their suspicion that he was a terrorist was later disproved. Mr Feeney is telling her off for leaving her door open.

'I try to leave my door open whenever I can,' she says. 'You know what I say: if the bullet is meant for you, it will find you.' But she locks up after dark and sleeps behind a steel mesh grille put up by the Northern Ireland Office after a brick smashed through her bedroom window.

'I am bloody terrified at night,' she says. 'There are three widows within 25 yards of this house. You just don't go out at night, especially since the trouble of the past two weeks.'

She recalls incidents when Protestants, out revelling the night before commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, have become violent, and she recalls an incident when British soldiers burst into her home and threatened her son when she found them hiding in her pathway. But for Protestants in general, she has no bile, recalling an incident when she heard howling in the no man's land behind her home. 'I got a ladder and climbed over the wall and found two puppies,' she said. 'I took them over to the other side and knocked on some woman's door. She said they weren't hers and then, realising where I was from, said: 'Aren't you afraid to be here?'

'I said: 'No, why should I be? I'm just like you; you want frigging peace, don't you?' She said yes.'

On the other side of the divide, in Torrens Court, Annette Houghton, a 24-year-old Protestant, is bringing up her son, Stefan, aged three.

'I hate it here,' she said. 'I have to be careful where I go. I won't go out at all at night. I worry about Stefan and how he will grow up, but I can only feel completely safe for him if I move somewhere like the Shankill Road. The thing is, I don't have a problem with Catholics, only the ones who use violence.'

This attitude is common among most people to whom you speak, but the tension in the city is too much for them to believe it can lead to peace. Few seem to have faith in the latest initiatives.

Darkness has fallen and you call a cab to take you away. A friendly, nervous Protestant picks you up, complaining that the city centre is empty, bars are closing early, suspicion is everywhere.

'I've never known it worse; you can't trust anyone,' he says. 'I go into a club in Antrim and it's a mixed place. I walk in and my friends will say: 'Hello, you Orange bastard' and I'll say 'Howya doin', you Fenian fuckers', and then we'll get along and avoid politics.

'But after the Shankill bombing, one of my friends came up and said: 'Jimmy, Bill over there' - Bill's a Catholic - 'he just said nine-nil and we were all shocked'. Bill came up and said sorry, he'd had a drink. But he said it, and now you wonder what he thinks, what he's got inside him. It's scary.'

(Photograph omitted)