BELFAST (Reuters) - Rocket-propelled grenades no longer explode on Belfast’s “RPG Avenue” but Michael Culbert, a gunman-turned-community worker, has his work cut out in a city still criss-crossed by walls separating Catholics from Protestants.
Culbert, who served 16 years in the Maze prison outside Belfast for killing members of the British forces, has swapped the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for a job running Coiste, a European Union-funded organization looking mainly after fellow republican ex-prisoners.
Signposted both “RPG Avenue” and “Beechmount Avenue,” this street just off the Catholic stronghold of Falls Road is home to Coiste but remains a no-go area for many Protestants 10 years after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
That deal largely ended 30 years of sectarian violence — the so-called Troubles — during which more than 3,600 people were killed, including around 2,000 civilians and 1,000 members of the security forces.
Most analysts and residents agree that Northern Ireland will not return to all-out sectarian violence between mainly Protestant loyalists, who want the province to remain British, and predominantly Catholic republicans or nationalists, like Culbert, who want reunification with the rest of Ireland.
But tensions still simmer, gunmen still lurk in the grey areas outside the law in a community inured to violence, and not everyone has forgiven or forgotten the atrocities that shattered families and divided friends.
“The future is hopefully that the peace process will work,” Culbert said. “Nobody is getting killed, the economy will lift, there will be more employment prospects hopefully,” he added.
“I am not saying everybody is hugging and kissing, but things are improving.”
There are obvious signs that things have changed radically in the province, which is home to 1.7 million people.
British army watchtowers have been dismantled and soldiers no longer patrol pavements in Belfast. It is hard to find free rooms or tables in the city’s hotels and restaurants — they are full of businessmen and tourists.
Northern Ireland’s politicians are vying to attract foreign investors to a region that was once a world leader in building ships, including the Titanic. The economy has started to benefit from inward investment by companies attracted by government incentives and a skilled workforce.
A power-sharing government of republicans and pro-British unionists has ushered in political stability. And arch enemies are also working together outside parliament.
Culbert’s Coiste provides funding for Noel Large, who also served 16 years in jail for killing Catholics as a member of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). He now runs community projects and educational tours around the Protestant area of Shankill Road.
It’s something that once would have been unthinkable.
“I lived in East Belfast and there was a Republican enclave,” said Large. “The only time I set foot it in was when I was looking to kill somebody in it.”
British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 to help quell unrest over civil rights which erupted between the majority Protestant population and Catholics.
Years of bombings, shootings, kidnappings, torture and fear followed as sectarian tensions exploded until violence largely ended with an IRA ceasefire in 1997.
Now some former paramilitaries on both sides are using the authority they still command to help rebuild communities burdened by poverty, segregation and violence, said Peter Shirlow, lecturer in criminology at Queen’s University Belfast.
“These are the people who are actually trying to say, there is a shared future for all of us,” Shirlow said.
“It’s very ironic: because they have used violence, because they have stuck with their struggles, because they have stuck with their ideology, people have respect for them.”
The ex-gunmen also help deal with festering fears.
Belfast’s famous “peace lines” — Berlin Wall-like barriers that divide Catholics and Protestants — are still standing and in fact, four new ones have been built since 1998.
The walls protect residents from each other but they also add to their sense of insecurity. So ex-prisoners have set up a mobile phone network to prevent panic needlessly spreading about impending attacks by an invisible “enemy.”
“Former prisoners ring each other and say, ‘there is a rumor in our community that you are going to attack us’. The person on the other side of the wall can go and see if that’s true and then call back and say ‘no, there is no threat from our community, that’s an exaggeration’,” Shirlow said.
The initiative is positive but spotlights lingering distrust. Integration has improved at workplaces, but people say it will be years before they can venture into the strongholds of the other community, walk into a pub and enjoy a drink.
Not all paramilitaries have given up violence. Some have joined small but active splinter groups — like the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA — while many more have turned to criminal activities, like drug dealing and smuggling.
The Real IRA carried out the deadliest single bombing of the “Troubles” in the market town of Omagh in August 1998. Twenty-nine people were killed.
Since the accord, Protestant meeting halls have been bombed, and there have been attacks on police by dissident Irish republicans. New forms of violence have also appeared.
“There has been a lot of improvement in the street clashes, the sectarian disorder ... all the rioting and so forth, that’s largely come to a halt,” said Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research.
“There have been problems with other sorts of violence though which had not really been recognized to a great extent during the conflict.”
Racist incidents are on the rise after the arrival of new immigrants from eastern Europe, China or Africa.
And the paramilitaries are still very influential.
“The IRA exercise enormous control on their communities, not through violence but through economics,” said sociologist James Dingley, a former lecturer at the University of Ulster.
They produce their own vodka, manufacture their own cigarettes, pirate DVDs and smuggle fuel from the Irish Republic and also run a range of legitimate businesses, Dingley said.
Many loyalist paramilitaries belonging to the UVF or the Ulster Defence Association have engaged in more overt and less sophisticated crimes.
“On the loyalist side, the paramilitaries have just turned to gangsterism and they are more interested in poisoning our children with drugs than anything else,” said one 52-year-old who identified himself as Charlie and a pro-British unionist.
Despite his own role in promoting peace, Large said things might never be “normal.”
“People from outside come along and think there is peace ... They think we are all walking about hand-in-hand, it’s never like that, it’s never going to be like that because it never was before the Troubles, we were always divided.”