Few parliaments across the world can boast gents lavatories as impressive as the ones at Stormont where Northern Ireland's representatives can relieve themselves in the splendour of black and grey marble. The only problem is that there aren't any representatives. Or at least there are, but they have nobody to represent.
The Northern Ireland Assembly here has been suspended for the past four years, although everyone goes through the motions, with swanky offices, support staff and decent sal aries. A few months ago, the British and Irish governments declared that they had had enough. They summoned the main parties to St Andrews in Scotland, where on 13 October they foisted on them a fresh agreement. This gave both sides until the end of November to accept new terms for restoring a devolved government and parliament by next March - or face direct rule for a long time to come (and no more perks and plush toilets). The haggling is characteristically bitter. But if the two arch enemies, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein do finally form a joint administration, it would mark the end point for the 40-year "troubles".
"This is the biggie," says Gerry Kelly, former IRA terrorist and possibly the next justice minister. Kelly has been doing the "peace process" for a decade and, like voters of all persuasions, he has learnt to be cautious. In any case, the idea of a government led by the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness is hardly one to gladden the heart. That is, curiously, also a source of optimism. It is one thing for moderate unionists and nationalists to sit together (they did it during the 1990s during the Assembly's various guises); it is quite another for the hard core to engage. For Paisley, the idea of ever dealing with Dublin was bad enough. Now he is being asked to talk to his nemesis, Gerry Adams. For republicans, recognising the police as the executors of law and order marks a wrench with history. "We have to be careful that we're not going too far ahead of our people," says Kelly. "But we do have to prepare them for changes ahead."
We were chatting in the republican cultural centre of the Falls Road, once a Presbyterian church. Northern Ireland is travelling two paths at the same time. One part of life here has moved on. Belfast's skyline is dominated by cranes. From the Waterfront Hall by the river to the new Odyssey sports centre, to the Michelin-starred restaurants and designer shops, the city is rebranding itself as a popular destination for low-cost airlines from Britain and Europe, for shoppers from the Irish Republic, and for business conferences.
And yet one does not have to venture more than a few hundred metres from the centre to be dragged back into the past. Kelly says he still makes a detour of half an hour to drive from the Falls to his home in the Ardoyne district, the centre of the violence of the 1970s and 80s. He still assumes that if he was spotted at a traffic light in the neighbouring Protestant Shankill Road, he would be dragged from his car, not to be seen again. The same would apply to hundreds of people on both sides. Former convicted terrorists and murderers, released as part of amnesties or political deals, walk the streets. This is a small town.
The politicians' idea of peace is built on a false premise. Northern Ireland is officially becoming two societies. Communities, who even during the worst of the troubles were largely integrated, have now separated. There are Catholic schools, Protestant leisure centres, Catholic libraries and Protestant post offices. While there are some courageous people trying to develop integrated schools and integrated social housing, they are few and far between. Some 80 per cent of people now live in what are called single identity communities. Middle-class ethnic cleansing tends to be more discreet - the "ahem" here, the cold shoulder there. In working-class areas, the process begins with the upturned paving stone by the front door, and ends with the firebomb through the letter box.
I drive into the mainly Protestant east of the city. I stop at a dishevelled nick-nack shop, browse through the "No Surrender" banners, the Glasgow Rangers football shirts, settling on a "King Billy" mug celebrating the Battle of the Boyne. I give my £4 to the wizened lady, but have no idea where it will end up. I dread to think.
My next appointment is with Sir Hugh Orde, chief constable of the renamed Police Service of Northern Ireland. This, to many Catholics, remains the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary and Protestants always saw it as "our police".
They don't now. Orde has introduced a series of reforms as required by the government. He has decreed that all police stations be "neutral environments" - no Union Flags, no pictures of the Queen. A 50/50 recruitment drive has seen the number of Catholics in the force increase from 8 to 21 per cent. Hundreds of officers have quit, either in protest, lured by attractive pay-offs, or both.
Progress may be remarkable, but police stations still resemble barracks in war zones. Still, Orde is encouraged by the increasing willingness of ordinary Catholics to call the police if they are victims of ordinary crime. "What I'm saying to them is, give us a chance," says the man from Dorking. "If we fuck it up, then fine . . ." He has been a regular fixture at meetings involving the British and Irish governments, and Ulster's political parties. He maintains that he has carried out the reforms, both in spirit and letter. "I've told them all: 'I've done it; there's nothing else for me to do.' I think they accept that." Paradoxically, the closer that republicans get to accepting the police, the greater the threat of terrorism from splinter groups. In recent weeks, a number of shops have been set alight. Orde says his force and the Irish police have disrupted several serious incidents.
Gangs of convenience
The biggest emerging threat, according to Orde, is racist attacks against immigrants. Northern Ireland now has up to 40,000 Poles (though nobody has any real idea of numbers), along with an array of Slovaks, Lithuanians and others who are prepared to do the cheap labour that locals shirk. The most vulnerable group are Filipino nurses working at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. Because house prices and rents have risen so fast, these nurses have been forced to move into the most dangerous sectarian areas. Both sides have carried out muggings and assaults (on one or two occasions Catholics and Protestants have teamed up to beat foreigners), but most of the violence can be traced to working-class Protestants.
It is this group that largely constitutes the dispossessed. The old manufacturing jobs reserved for Protestants have gone. The new economy and the new university places are being occupied increasingly by Catholics, who have long seen education as an escape route. Queen's University, the more prestigious of Ulster's two universities, now have a Catholic majority. A growing number of aspiring Protestants apply for places at English and Scottish universities, and then decide not to return.
These demographics point to the future direction of Northern Ireland. While even the most idealistic republicans concede that a united Ireland will elude them, at least for a generation, it is they who gained the political spoils. Everything that unionists give up, they know they give up for good. As I watched Nelson McCausland, a DUP councillor, talk about identity in a seminar involving Sinn Fein and representatives from the south, I couldn't help but agree with him that the Ulster-Scots heritage is gradually being eroded. "We now have a cultural establishment that celebrates only Irishness or Anglo-Irishness," McCausland says.
Sinn Fein and nationalists in general have been more canny at appealing to the modern, metropolitan instincts of British and Irish opinion formers. They stress women's rights and a broader equality agenda. Unionists, and not just Paisley's theocratic brand, are portrayed as sash-wearing, bowler hatted men from the 1950s.
People such as Glenn Patterson are trying to change that. Patterson is a celebrated writer, proud to be unionist, but not proud of what that often entails. He is frustrated that anyone who speaks out against any detail of the "peace process" is automatically labelled reactionary.
He talks with great power about his disappointment, and that of many of his generation, Protestant or Catholic. The political groupings may have achieved parity of esteem, but they have been allowed to become separate hegemonies, with no sense of self-criticism or reform. "This surely can't be the best we could have got," Patterson tells me, as we drink our lattes in a fashionable spot. "I don't want to live in a normally corrupt place, and accept that as my lot."
Luxury of victimhood
My final interlocutor, in the leafy streets of the suburb of Holywood, is one of the most impressive men in Northern Ireland's religious-political nexus.The Reverend Harold Good is a Methodist pastor who has told many police wives that they are now widows. He has dealt with loyalist and republican paramilitaries alike. A year ago, to the consternation of Paisley and many hardline unionists, he bore official witness to the final act of disarmament by the IRA. In one day, the main obstacle to political progress had been removed.
Good now travels the world, to the Basque country, Sri Lanka and other places of strife, giving talks about the mechanics of peace making. But he believes passionately that, as long as the two communities live apart, they will not live harmoniously. "People don't question separation any more. They've accepted that that's the way it is." Good talks of a mixture of excitement among Northern Ireland's voters about a possible deal, and also disdain for the politicians who are negotiating it. "People are weary of it all," he says. "Both sides have been luxuriating in their different notions of victimhood for far too long. The sooner we get kicked out of it the better."
On my final morning, I go to see the peace lines. Belfast has twice as many of these Berlin-style walls since the "war" was deemed over more than a decade ago. Ken, who works for the local tourist board, takes me on a tour of the Falls and the Shankill, the kind of thing he does for Germans and Italians during the summer. We look at the new murals. We drive past Holy Cross, where only a few years ago Catholic primary school children had to run the gauntlet of Protestant protesters. We drive down the Ballymurphy estate, for long the home of republican drugs barons and other assorted hoods.
We zigzag across the peace line, back into the Protestant Lower Shankill, home of the loyalist paramilitaries. We are forced to stop our car as three-dozen or so men in crew cuts marched across the road, in their suits and with poppies in their lapels. It is the 11th of the 11th, and they are going to commemorate Remembrance Day - nothing at all wrong in that. But the look in their eyes . . . "All these men have their history," says Ken, as we drive down the hill to the other world of brasseries and convention centres, and a people hoping hard that they really have moved on.
The pampering comes to an end
John O’Farrell reports on new sticks from impatient paymasters
Peace brings its own dividends, or at least the politicians thought it did. The sequel to the St Andrews Agreement was supposed to be the All Saints' Day bung, a financial package to be announced to Northern Ireland's political parties by Gordon Brown on 1 November. Dutifully, senior figures from the five main parties trooped off to No 11, having coordinated their requests for "cash for infrastructure", along with local tax cuts for employers and foreign investors. They were in for a rude awakening.
Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists and one-time minister for trade and investment in the defunct Assembly, gave trade unionists and voluntary groups an intriguing insight into the mindset of British ministers. We were invited by Empey to Stormont to listen to his account. The Chancellor had spun a story of a £50bn peace dividend for Northern Ireland, but according to Empey not a penny of that was new money. It was all recycled from previous commitments stretching over a decade. Indeed, it was worse. Brown made it clear to the Ulster delegation that if the parties failed to agree by 24 November, and to re-establish the Executive and Assembly, future money could be withheld.
"There was nothing inherent about the threat. It was explicit," Empey told the meeting. Brown's message was:"If we don't sort it out, we'll be left to hang." Empey said: "There's a growing impatience over there with Northern Ireland. If we fail to make the grade politically, they'll leave us to fester."
One of the biggest problems facing Ulster's politicians as they grapple with the details of devolution is that they have managed to convince their local electorate and the UK Treasury that things have never been better. Years of "good news" (the demise of the IRA, lowest unemployment ever, a housing boom) have made it more difficult to screw extra money from Brown to underpin a revived local democracy.
One of the richest and most productive parts of the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Northern Ireland now gets about £8bn a year to make up for its lousy tax take and its high public spending. The remainder of the hand-out is the £16bn for infrastructure agreed in 2001. Brown's "new money" turns out to be the old trick of using proceeds from the sales of existing government offices that are then rented back from private landlords.
Unionist parties, despite appearances, are as economically populist as the nationalists. Rampant free markets never took root and the public sector actually increased under Margaret Thatcher. The economy is still skewed towards the public sector (one-third work directly for the government) but that disguises the dismal performance of private enterprise. There are fewer than ten plcs; the largest is the privatised electricity board. The province also has the second-lowest level of business start-ups in the UK.
Inspite of all the various subsidies from Whitehall, the European Union and even money from the Irish Republic, average wages are 20 per cent lower than the UK average, while the large number of people deemed to be "economically inactive" makes a mockery of the "historically low" figure of 36,000 unemployed.
The boom, such as there is, has not been driven from within - hence the frustration from Northern Ireland's paymasters.