Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Belfast's armored vehicles ferry partyers, not soldiers


Armored vehicles are back on Belfast streets at night. However, now nobody flinches at the sight of the once-dreaded "Humber Pigs."

Instead of automatic weapons, the vehicles have state-of-the-art sound systems blasting out music. Revelers, not soldiers, look from the viewing slits. Welcome to the party city of Belfast.

"We would never even have dared dream of this," says Fearghal O'Connor, the businessman whose idea it was take armored vehicles used during the Troubles, as the conflict was called, and use them for a Belfast party tour.

Where once there was tension, nightlife flourishes. Foreign tourists gawp at the militaristic murals which stoked the fury of Protestant and Catholics in their still separate residential areas.

Almost 4,000 people died in the Northern Ireland conflict since Catholics and Protestants took to the barricades in Derry in 1969.

In 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement, hopes of a lasting peace emerged. These hopes were boosted a year ago when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a "final" cessation to armed warfare.

The IRA announced that it would pursue its goal of unity with the Republic of Ireland through political means only.

Leader of the international body overseeing the disarmament, retired Canadian General John de Chastelain attested to the IRA having decommissioned its arms.

However, the most important foundation for peace in Northern Ireland has been the enormous economic development that has taken place since 1998.

Companies are taking advantage of the ceasefire and British and EU investment aid.

Through the opening of the border, Northern Ireland has been in a position to benefit greatly from the economic upturn in the Republic of Ireland, which since entering the EU in 1973 has moved from the poorhouse to being one of the EU's most prosperous nations.

As with its neighbor, Northern Ireland's unemployment rate has been considerably reduced -- from close to 18 percent to the current 4.5 percent.

"Despite economic success, we regret that there is a political vacuum," British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain says.

At Stormont, the seat of the North's Assembly, a church-like stillness prevails. Four years after the Good Friday breakthrough, the self-rule made possible by the agreement has been suspended owing to disputes between the Gerry Adams' nationalist Sinn Fein party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Ian Paisley.

Now the governments in London and Dublin are calling on the 108 Stormont assembly members to agree on renewing self-rule to Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein and its military wing, the IRA, have pledged to do this. However, 80-year-old Paisley, a Presbyterian minister who sees the link between Britain and Northern Ireland as being threatened, rules out power-sharing with nationalists.

Nonetheless, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern have issued an ultimatum along with the challenge.

The assembly members have until Nov. 24 to form a government that represents all the parties, or lose their annual salary. Northern Ireland would then be ruled from London again, with Dublin having a say.

"If the politicians want to avoid this happening," Hain says, "then they should go to Stormont and form a government together."

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