In a cramped brick rowhouse on Primitive Street in Sandy Row, an unyielding Protestant ghetto, Mary McMullen, a white-haired widow of 80, talked of the day's murder and bombings.
"It gets you down. It's horrible. The only thing about it is I'm glad I'm on my way out."
In an equally grim, gray stone rowhouse in the ardently Catholic Ardoyne, Eddie M., a veteran Irish Republican Army campaigner who fears having his name in print, tells an old friend:
"You can't lose that hate. You can't live with those Protestants that shot you. You and me, we'll never live to see it finished."
Eddie is 43.
Five miles from this sad city's burned and bombed-out center is a mock Gothic Victorian castle set in well-tended green and rolling lawns. It is Stormont Castle, headquarters for the Northern Ireland minister or British administrator of Ulster.
There, Roy Mason, the new minister, is ebullient.
"You keep getting a success," he says, and ticks off the subsidies he has saved for Ulster from the British government's economy ax.
"The hard men are beginning to think twice," he says, and predicts that intransigent Protestant politicians will soon be in a mood for concessions to avoid being "frozen out."
The interview is cut short by a helicopter landing on the lawn outside. It comes to take Mason to a waiting Air Force plane and London. It spares him from seeing at close hand the blasted city beneath the castle's eminence.
A reporter who has been coming here periodically for more than five years has never seen in Ulster so pervasive a mood of despair and hopelessness. People on both sides of the bitter sectarian divide say that the tribal war, now more than seven years old, could well last another seven, and seven more beyond that. There are no fresh ideas, they say. There is little sign of any accomodation.
Protestants want to restore the "majority rule" that enabled them to grab whatever jobs, housing and prestige were going. Only some Catholics still insist that the predominantly Protestant province must be forced into the overwhelming Catholic Republic of Ireland in the south. But Catholics say they will resist any return to the hated Protestant ascendancy that existed before Britain began ruling the place directly.
Even if Protestant politicians yielded to London's demands and agreed to some form of shared power or coalition with Catholics, every boy here is aware that the private armies - terrorists or paramilitaries depending on one's point of view - could wreck any deal.
"You can't have a political solution if the paramilitaries don't want it," says Eddie, the IRA veteran. "The paramilitaries don't want it because it's too much of a good thing."
In Sandy Row, John McMullen, Mary's brother-in-law, says "there's no difference" between the IRA or the Protestant Ulster Defense Association, Ulster Volunteer Force or the Red Hand Commandos.
"They're racketeers on both sides," McMullen says in disgust.
The cab drivers who ply the Catholic Falls Road now "contribute" a "tenner," 10 pounds (about $17) weekly to the IRA. On the Protestant Shankill, the cabbies pay the identical license fee to the Defense Association or the Volunteer Force.
In the Ardoyne, the local social and drinking place is the Star Club, and once you could hear people there sing the old Republican songs. Not any more.The Star pays off at the rate of 200 pounds a week, about $340.
According to Eddie, gunmen led a man into the Star in full view of the patrons. Their victim had spent seven years detained without trial by the British, a suspected IRA member. Even so, the gunmen said their man had been stealing from the community and shot off his kneecap with a pistol.
That sort of incident is a powerful inducement to contribute and shut up.
Meanwhile, the gunmen in both camps have become well entrenched businessmen, running bars, bookmaking establishments and even grocery stores for personal profit.
There is one new feature in this dismal landscape. There is a harsh and vicious character to the killings that was not present in the past.
In North Belfast, one Protestant terrorist has made a name of sorts for himself. He climbs ladders in the small hours of the morning and shoots in their beds Catholics he thinks are IRA men.
"There used to be a morality," complains Sam Duddy, himself a lesser figure in the East Belfast Ulster Defense Association. "You wouldn't shoot a man in his own home. On the street, that's all right. But there's no morality now."
On the other side of the divide, Scamus Loughran is a former spokesman for Provisional Sinn Fein, the political front for the Provisional IRA.
"It's gotten a lot more calloused," he said. "They're prepared to take out a Joe Allison to get that businessman."
He was talking about the recent IRA murder of a British businessman whose chauffeur, Allison, was badly wounded in the attack. That was particularly painful since Allison was a loyal son of Andersontown, a Catholic and IRA stronghold.
"The bomb warnings are close, too close, like the early days," Loughran went on. The lack of warning time can kill and maim innocents.
The other new feature of the new hard men in the IRA is their adoption of a Marxist jargon. They call each other "comrade," describe themselves as "revolutionaries" and quote Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung at graveside orations and in death notices.
"What's the point?" Loughran asks. "You can quote Pearse and Connolly. They left volumes behind."
Patrick Pearse and James Connolly were heroes of the 1916 IRA uprising that established the Free State in the south.
In London, a high British official readily acknowledges in private that the government lacks any blueprint to escape the horror. It is aiming only at a "tenable" security situation and the transfer of an increasing amount of the burden from British troops to the local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
What is "tenable" is not defined, although minister Mason correctly says that British troops are coming under less fire.
They are better trained, patrol in pairs of four-man teams, each reinforcing the other and are rarely engaged by the IRA now. Five years ago, a solider was killed every three days. Now the toll is little more than one a month.
The soldiers' good fortune has made life harder for everyone else. The IRA attacks policemen, rival Protestant killers and, most recently, businessmen. This last reflects the Marxist veneer, a belief that somehow wiping out executives will destroy Ulster "capitalism."
The central point is that the total death rate remains largely unchanged, about two murders every three days for the last four years.
At Stormont Castle, the British administrators vigorously deny that they are without policy.
"We haven't been credited for the political initiative we have taken," says Lord Melchett, 29, a Labor Party peer and Mason's deputy.
What is that initiative?
"Accepting that you can't draw up solutions in Whitehall and expect them to work," Melchett answers.
In fact, Mason says he has a tactic, even if it cannot be dignified with the word "solution." He proposes to let Ulster's politicians stew in their own juices until they see reason.
"These people want to get back into politics," he says. "There may then be a meeting of minds and a willingness to talk."
In sum, he hopes that life in the political wilderness will be so uncomfortable that Protestant leaders will come forward and accept an arrangement to share local power with Catholics.
The politicians from both camps think Mason is ridiculous.
Paddy Devlin, a leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, calls the scheme "nonsense."
William Craig, once a hard-line Protestant leader who has risked his career to urge a coalition with Catholics, describes Mason's tactic as "bunk, absolute bunk."
There is a simple political rubric here that goes like this: There can be no peace without power sharing; There can be no power sharing without the assent of Protestant politicians.
But any Protestant leader who makes the least gesture toward Catholics is likely to lose his following.
The only new idea in Ulster is a call for an independent sovereign state, emanating from the unlikeliest sources. Its chief sponsor is John McKeague, a Protestant hardliner who has served time for armed robbery and was imprisoned for two years without trial as the suspected boss of the Red Hand Commandos.
McKeague, who says with a smile that St. Paul was converted too, urges the creation of an Ulster ministrate, supported for a time by a British subsidy of $500 million a year and governed initially by a coalition of Protestants and Catholics.
His scheme has won the interest of Devlin and several other Catholic leaders in his party. Mason and the British establishment won't hear of it, however. They dismiss it as "nonsense." At bottom, they fear the idea will encourage the separatists in Scotland.
The real reason the scheme arouses interest is because of the rooted belief, among thoughtful Protestants as well as thoughtful Catholics, that Britian is quietly withdrawing from the province. There is a widespread doubt that anything like 14,000 soldiers, the announced number, are still in Ulster. The government strenuously denies that any withdrawal is contemplated.
The Northern Ireland Police Federation, spokesman for the constables, has publicly expressed its disbelief in Mason's assurances. A reporter finds far fewer patrols on the streets than a year ago. At Craigavon Bridge over the Foyle River in Londonderry, the checkpoint is now manned by two soldiers where 10 once stood guard.
It is clear that a British administration that could pull out of Ulster without leaving an ugly civil war in its wake would gain great popularity on the mainland. The absence of any positive proposals from London and the disappearance of the troops from the streets will strengthen the suspicion that withdrawal has begun and encourage strange alliances like that between Devlin and McKeague.
There is one other absence to be noted here, the disappearance of the heavily publicized peace movement. It was started last summer in the wake of a typical outrage, the killing of three children. Now the movement "is dead and just awaits its funeral," as a shrewd clergyman put it.
The movement had no program; its well-meaning founders got too much personal publicity for jealous Ulster's taste; there was too much money from abroad; rallies for peace are splendid - once or twice.
The movement still calls on people to parade. Now they turn out in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands. The whole affair demonstrates another rubric here; Ulster politics are the politics of the last atrocity.