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Living in a divided land

Patrick ‘Pod’ Devenney, a convicted Irish Republican Army terrorist, had his head smashed in by riot police on a Belfast street in the summer of 2002. At the age of 40 the Catholic combatant suddenly found himself without the use of his right hand. Dipankar De Sarkar reports.

world Updated: Apr 17, 2011 10:37 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times

Patrick 'Pod' Devenney, a convicted Irish Republican Army terrorist, had his head smashed in by riot police on a west Belfast street in the summer of 2002.

At the age of 40, the Catholic combatant suddenly found himself without the use of his right hand.

Protestant ex-militant William 'Plum' Smith spent 10 years in jail in the 1970s for the attempted murder of a Catholic man before becoming a politician.

"That's what it was like then," says Smith, 57.

"I was born into the Troubles."

Devenney and Smith would have been at each other's throats today had not politicians in London, Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland moved determinedly to resolve a political-religious strife that had claimed 3,700 lives in the three decades to 1998.

Instead, the two men are among the majority of Catholics and Protestants who have opted for the peaceful route to pull off their sworn objectives - the Catholics' dream of uniting the southern Republic with Northern Ireland and the Protestants' equally dogged bid to keep the province British.

What are Devenney and Smith up to these days?

They conduct guided tours of the capital Belfast, telling visitors morbid stories from its once-bombed out streets. It is a calling that appears to be dictated by the mood of the city and the success of a political process that has been chipping away at terrorist violence since 1998.

Buried among news of sporadic acts of terrorism, Northern Ireland's regional Assembly has just completed its full four-year term for the first time.

Political devolution in Northern Ireland is among the boldest experiments in conflict resolution seen in Western Europe in a long time.

This province of 1.8 million people was given a choice: they could keep fighting an unwinnable and bloody war or get themselves a government with elected representatives from all religions and political opinions locked into a power-sharing arrangement.

"I'm still an active Republican," says Devenney.

"It's not a religious fight for me; it's about self-determination. But I support the police - you need it."

An ex-IRA terrorist supporting the police?

No wonder some on the streets of Belfast describe the peace process as 'pinch me politics.'

Under the power-sharing arrangement, the leader of the largest party in the legislative assembly gets to be first minister (like a chief minister) and that of the second largest deputy first minister. What this means in practice is that the two leaders of the Protestants and Catholics will always get to share the top job.

The current first minister is Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and his deputy the ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.

"The two are really joint first ministers," said a senior civil servant.

"We don't take instructions from any one person. That means that when they disagree on something, they keep talking - until the night if they have to."

The Protestant DUP leads with 36 seats in the 108-member Assembly, and the Catholic Sinn Fein - once dubbed the political arm of the IRA - follows with 28.

The rest of the 108 seats are mostly taken by the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party and the non-sectarian Alliance Party.

Simply put, the two big parties are mostly on the same page. There are many issues that they don't agree on, but these have been parked in favour of attending to day-to-day business.

"Potholes are very topical after rains," said a local official.

More importantly, working with an annual budget of £8 billion, the Belfast government has made medical prescriptions free for all patients - unlike in England and Wales. But rolling out such populist measures just when Britain is tightening its belt may be harder to do the next time around.

The greater and more immediate challenge comes in the form of the spectre of resurgent terrorism. In the weeks leading up the May 5 election, dissident Republican terrorists shot dead a fellow-Catholic police officer.

But the appetite for violence is rapidly ebbing in a province where the mainstream IRA killed 273 police officers during the Troubles, before giving up arms.

Catholics now make up 30% of Northern Ireland's 7,300-strong police force, and McGuinness echoed popular sentiment by condemning dissidents for waging "a useless war against peace."

It's a vicious cycle.

There are between 300 and 500 dissident terrorists with arms procured from sources such as East European arms smugglers who would like to bury the peace process. And with joblessness on the rise among the youth, they are able to tap into a disenfranchised community.

Equally challenging is the stubborn legacy of discrimination between Catholics and Protestants. Housing remains largely segregated and only 6% of children are in integrated schools.

"Housing and education are the two intractable issues in Northern Ireland," said Michael Culbert, an ex-IRA member who now helps out Republican ex-prisoners.

Nothing symbolises this divide more than the Falls Road wall that separates working class Catholics and Protestants of west Belfast - the part of the city that has lived through the worst of the violence.

Painted over with stunning murals glorifying guns and revolution, the wall is a relic of the Troubles that is also today a tourist draw.

It is through these deprived neighbourhoods that ex-combatants Devenney and Smith conduct their surreal tour guides.

Each relates a separate, unbridgeable history. Yet, it is their shared faith in peace that Northern Ireland is clinging to - like learning to live with the Falls Road wall.