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Pursuing Peace, and Prosperity

(Mary Jordan - Twp)

It helps that visitors touring the city's ornate Victorian center no longer turn a corner and come face to face with a heavily armed British commando or an army checkpoint.

For a long time in the 1980s, Belfast's spectacular neoclassical City Hall was draped with a massive fluttering banner that declared, "Belfast Says No," a defiant loyalist slogan that seemed to sum up the dark and negative feel of that era.

Now the city center feels more like a small, prospering European capital, with a spruced-up City Hall festooned recently with a banner advertising a classical music concert. New hotels and a concert hall line the rejuvenated waterfront, along with the 10,000-seat Odyssey Arena, which hosts the city's professional hockey team, the Belfast Giants.

On the Falls Road, McVeigh, caught in 1983 driving downtown in a Ford Cortina packed with explosives, now walks along waving to friends, showing people the old hot spots. The trim man in T-shirt and sneakers seems to know everyone; cars honk and passersby greet him by name as he walks a four-mile route.

He joined the IRA when he was 16, following his older brothers before him. By 18, he was in jail, serving seven years before his release in 1991. But after just 11 months of freedom, he was jailed on another explosives charge and held in prison until 2000.

McVeigh insisted that his bombs were not intended to kill. They were meant to levy a "guerrilla tax" by inflicting financial damage on the British government. But many IRA bombs were lethal, part of a cycle of violence that the overwhelming majority of people here are fed up with.

Milestones of the war dot McVeigh's walking route. He points out plaques affixed to brick homes commemorating the murders of a Catholic or an IRA member, and he stops in the growing number of remembrance gardens honoring IRA prisoners and dead. Many of these places have fresh flowers and notes.

The best-known sights are the vast, colorful murals that depict scenes from the IRA movement, including the smiling face of Bobby Sands, who died in a hunger strike in the H block of the Maze prison in 1981.

More than 3,000 people, most of them academics from the United States and Europe, have taken what McVeigh calls "political tours" since Coiste, a support group for former IRA prisoners, started them two years ago.

Other visitors tour the neighborhood in commercial vehicles. Black taxis and sightseeing buses roll through the old flash points, bringing the curious from places as far away as New Zealand and California.

The government is not promoting the political tours, preferring to spend its money on less divisive spots, such as the Bushmills Distillery and the Giant's Causeway, a dramatic formation of volcanic rock farther up the County Antrim coast.

Many people here see the IRA's laying down of weapons as a practical realization that it had lost most of its remaining support -- including from its financial backers in the United States -- for its violent campaign against British rule.


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