Island of new homes offers hope in the shadow of Belfast's 60ft-high sectarian peaceline

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It is the mother of all Belfast sectarian flashpoints, the iconic birthplace of the modern IRA, a troublespot which for decades has been an intermittent war zone.

It is the mother of all Belfast sectarian flashpoints, the iconic birthplace of the modern IRA, a troublespot which for decades has been an intermittent war zone.

A forbidding 60ft-high peaceline, hundreds of yards long, imposes almost absolute segregation between the militantly loyalist Shankill and the trenchantly republican Falls.

It separates Cupar Way from Bombay Street, which houses a reverently tended "martyrs memorial garden" commemorating the IRA, Sinn Fein and civilian casualties of the conflict.

This is the spot where in 1969 marauding loyalists burnt Catholic homes in what many view as the start of serious violence. And yet, to general amazement, the Shankill side of the peaceline is showing the first fragile signs of recovery. The moonscape there is being re-colonised: new homes are being built there on land that was written off as uninhabitable.

So far it is a small-scale development, but the authorities hope it will eventually bring a dramatic transformation of this ravaged area. Practically in the shadow of the huge wall, amid barbed wire, the weeds and dereliction, stands a row of 18 new houses, some already occupied, some still being built by a developer with Shankill connections.

According to Baroness May Blood, the veteran Shankill-based community worker: "My mind goes back to the days when there was rioting there every night of the week.

"It was a wasteland and we thought it would never come to life again. I said, 'Who the devil would buy a house there?' But they've been bought - this is so good for the Shankill."

Alan McNeill, 31, a call centre manager who lives in one of the Cupar Way houses, said: "When I tell people where I live, they step back in amazement and their eyes open wide.

"But times have changed. This will be a nice area. The changes in Northern Ireland have already been phenomenal, and there's no going back any more."

Elsewhere in Belfast, the £74,000 Mr McNeill paid for the house six months ago would buy a cramped two-up, two-down elderly house without a garden. But in his new home everything is large - the kitchen, the garden, the three bedrooms.

Mr McNeill explained: "I bought it because it was so inexpensive, but its value has already gone up to £90,000. As long as the peaceline holds, as long as the ceasefire holds, this is going to be a prime site for development."

Margaret Smyth, another new Cupar Way resident, said: "I like to live life on the edge. I really wanted to get on the property ladder, that's what really swung it for me. I did a lot of research and then I just thought, what the hell."

The developments at Cupar Way arise from an emerging partnership between the housing authorities and a few private developers aimed at tackling the Shankill's potent mix of deep social and paramilitary problems. The desolation and depression which has affected the Shankill has left the once-proud district with multiple problems in health, unemployment, housing and education.

In the 1960s, the housing improvements were not a success, while unemployment rose steeply with the closure of traditional industries such as shipbuilding. Then the troubles came as a hammer blow: the Shankill itself suffered, while thousands of local men joined loyalist paramilitary organisations and wound up in jail.

Later, in the 1990s, some loyalist groups turned to drug-dealing on a major scale, introducing yet another scourge to the blighted district. The exodus sparked by these factors eased housing overcrowding but introduced a new problem of under-population, leaving large areas disused and desolate.

This was particularly the case in peaceline areas such as Cupar Way, where the authorities deliberately left what were described as "sterile" areas in an attempt to cut down on the recurring violent clashes. The new Cupar Way housing developments thus challenge the long-established assumption that little or no improvement is possible.

According to the developer, Ken Smyth, who is building the 18 homes on Cupar Way: "Three banks turned me down before I could get finance. It was a high risk because the site was derelict for years, cars were getting burnt out on it and there was antisocial behaviour ... It worked out at about £9,000 for the land for each house. The ground was cheap and therefore the houses could be cheap."

The authorities believe it is realistic to hope the next seven years could see 2,000 new private houses there. Some believe this new phenomenon could be the salvation of Shankill, though it will take luck: yesterday, for example, the area was tense before a contested march due to take place today.

But there are no plans to remove the towering peaceline: the sobering fact is that, over more than three decades, dozens of such barriers have gone up but none has ever come down.

Yet if it cannot be removed it can, in some younger minds, be subtly re-defined. Mr McNeill, whose home looks directly on to it, explained: "It's a big tourist attraction, buses and taxis are continually bringing people up to see it.

"The old stereotypes are starting to go now, and here with the wall you've a bit of culture, a bit of history."