A glance at yesterday's news reports makes it starkly clear that there are very definitely two Belfasts. One of them is, as the Lonely Planet guide enthuses, marked by "hip hotels and hedonism". The city has, the guide correctly says, pulled off a remarkable transformation since the days when it was bracketed with Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia. Its older residents exude relief that the Troubles are over; meanwhile most younger people are hazy about what exactly happened during those long, dark years. These events are ceasing to be current affairs and are fast becoming part of history.
But backstreets Belfast is a world away from the downtown glitz, the Michelin-star restaurants and the nightclubs of the city centre. On Monday night, for example, four young men in the tough Shankill Road area were mercilessly beaten with baseball bats by a gang intent on fracturing their arms and legs. Incidents like this happened thousands of times in the bad old days. But the hope was that they would not recur in the new Belfast, the city that last year reached unexpected political agreement and was supposed to have achieved peace.
Yet complete peace is plainly too much to hope for. For one thing, Belfast has for centuries been a hard industrial city, with hard men to rival those of Glasgow and Liverpool. They became far, far harder during the conflict which claimed thousands of lives and immeasurably coarsened ghetto life. Even before the Troubles, Belfast policemen carried guns, sometimes patrolling in pairs wearing metal helmets.
Today there are some 20,000 people who have been behind bars as either republican or loyalist prisoners; hundreds of these were directly involved in taking life. Many of the city backstreets are not for the faint-hearted, since they contain not only these ex-paramilitaries but also thousands of basically lawless young people who lack any real moral compass.
In these circumstances, perhaps the wonder is not so much that paramilitary-style brutality persists but that it has been reduced to such low levels. And much is being done to bring about the improvements still needed. The Shankill, for example, is now the focus of intense official and voluntary activity aimed at healing a district scarred by years of paramilitarism, unemployment and poor education. Dedicated people are pouring much effort into combating those ravages and patiently attempting to demonstrate that baseball bats will not solve society's problems. This will be of no comfort to those who have bones shattered by thugs, but there is consolation in the knowledge that Belfast, in spite of setbacks, is a city heading in the right direction.Reuse content