Ulster: a heaven for the middle-class Good money, nice houses, great schools, no drugs to speak of - add peace, and w hat do you have?

Houses in Cultra sell for between £160,000 and £400,000 Britain's response promoted a new Catholic middle-class
Click to follow
AS THE Government was preparing to receive Northern Ireland's republican and loyalist extremists as part of the peace process last week, Robert McCartney walked his pet Alsatian in a bitterly cold wind on Cultra's seafront, a few miles from Belfas t. Elegant in hat, overcoat and finely woven tweed trousers, he was not discomfited by the blast icing the southern shore of Belfast Lough.

He is a successful QC and political commentator. Cultra, where he lives, is a Belfast suburb with well-preserved Victorian mansions, grand villas, and palm trees on every other front lawn. It is where a large proportion of Belfast's middle class resides,unassailed by the years of communal violence and, on the whole, profitably isolated from it.

"There are misconceptions about what the middle-class has gained from the Troubles," Mr McCartney said. "What they have gained has been largely the result of diligence and thrift, rather than the grants and subsidies from London and Brussels."

Last week, the European Union announced a £230m "ceasefire package" for Northern Ireland. This is on top of nearly £4bn which Westminster pours into the province annually. The middle-class has managed to enjoy a lifestyle enviable by most standards elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Houses in Cultra sell for between £160,000 and £400,000, according to a Belfast estate agent. Another agency is advertising a four-bedroom bungalow, a few hundred yards from the Cultra yacht club, for £195,000, and a four-bedroom cottage for £250,000. Inposh areas of Belfast itself, such as Malone Road and Cherryvalley, prices have soared and soared.

A house off Malone Road, sold for less than £50,000 in 1985, is now on offer for £140,000. Another house close by was sold in 1977 for just over £80,000 and is on sale for £425,000. "It's cuckoo - monopoly money," said David Wilson, a surveyor with a Belfast firm of estate agents.

In a city where the contented and the demented are starkly divided by geography and, often, cast of mind, Mr McCartney refers to "a paradise for unelected, faceless bureaucrats" who comprise a third of the entire labour force. Many residents of up-marketBelfast and its environs are civil servants on London salaries and with a lot of disposable income.

Places such as Cultra were free of sectarianism, Mr McCartney said. When his attention was drawn to loyalist graffiti on a gate pillar, he said: "That must have been put there within the last 24 hours. I despise those people as much as I despise the IRA."

Harold Gibson, salesman for a Mercedes-Benz agency, said sales of luxury vehicles are "well up". Businessmen, barristers and solicitors were paying up to £90,000 for cars, changing them every three years. "I sold a £25,000 model yesterday to a farmer. There's a certain kind of affluence about, and it's possible we're doing better than dealers in the UK," he said.

At Holywood golf club, near Cultra, there is a five-year queue for membership (£330 a year). Three new golf courses have opened near Belfast this year. Sports complexes are springing up all over the place. The middle-classes also flock to Spain and Portugal, North America and the Antipodes, according to Knock Travel which caters for the Cherryvalley set. "There's also a rush for cruises. People seem willing to spend more."

Graham Gudgin of the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre believes the province's middle-class affluence has been exaggerated. "Living standards of the upper half are good because most of them have not been directly affected by the Troubles," he said. "But you must remember that 200,000 work for the Government. There has been no recession here, due to the absence of mortgage debt, and the fact that employment rates stopped falling in 1990."

The disparity between middle-class and working-class incomes is greater than in Great Britain. Prices (apart from housing) are 5 per cent higher in Northern Ireland, which strains working people's budgets, especially in the low-paying private sector. Themiddle-class, on the other hand, finds "extras" cheaper: private schools, golf and yacht clubs and the like - hardly onerous if you are Roy McNulty, boss of the aircraft company Shorts (salary £345,000 a year), or Patrick Harren, head of Nort hern Ireland Electricity (£185,000).

State schools - especially grammar schools - are among the best in the kingdom, so middle-class parents do not hesitate to send their offspring to Sullivan Upper, in Holywood, for example, thus saving on fees. Drugs in the playgrounds and on the streets are much rarer in Belfast than in the old industrial cities of mainland Britain; the paramilitaries have done terrible injuries to the people whom they believe deal in them. Standards of care in the Health Service means that there is little demand for expensive private medicine. "That's why there are few private doctors here," said Dr John Alderdice, chairman of the (largely middle-class) Alliance Party. "The middle class has it made," Dr Gudgin said.

Who are the contented middle classes? Many have grown fat restoring bombed property, redeveloping slums, constructing new shopping centres, hotels, conference halls, motorways and bridges. Lawyers have made fortunes from claims for property damage and personal injury. Doctors have supplemented NHS earnings by giving medical evidence in court. Overtime and "danger money" have produced a well-heeled police force: "A colleague has estimated that 10 per cent of those earning more than £30,000 are policemen," Dr Gudgin said. This is what Terry Carlin, northern officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, calls a "dependency culture" created by the Troubles. The "dependents" tend not to complain, whatever side of the political and religious divide they occupy.

"Britain's response to the Troubles - an attempt to end religious discrimination - promoted a new Catholic middle class," a prominent Roman Catholic said last week. "They moved into Malone Road, traditionally a wealthy Protestant preserve. The `hut' where Catholic servants used to attend Mass has been replaced by a £1.25m church. The Protestants have started to move out - to places like Cultra and other parts of the `Gold Coast'."

Ulster's middle-class prosperity has thrived during 25 years of the troubles. What will happen to it if peace survives?

Resuming his walk past wind-bent palm trees, Mr McCartney said: "It isn't a bubble that will burst in the foreseeable future. All the money that is coming from Europe and America will help keep things buoyant."