Dr. Joe Hendron drove his slightly battered blue Toyota through the Catholic working-class ghettos of west Belfast where for 20 years he has run a community clinic next to a wasteland of crumbling buildings. He also is a leading member of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, which favors Irish unification but opposes the terrorism of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

"The great majority of people in west Belfast are decent -- they have seen 20 years of violence and want it to end. There are huge areas here with no IRA support," he said, gesturing with a burnt-out cigar but at the segregated neighborhoods of Protestants and Catholics.

Pulling into a maze of small winding streets, lined with dirty stucco houses fronted by tiny worn gardens, Hendron pointed out the squalor of one of the Catholic ghettos, Ballymurphy.

"These areas are the poorest in Britain," he said. "Catholic unemployment here is over 50 percent and those who work have menial jobs."

As small children stood admiring the rude barricade of twisted bed frames and rubbish they had erected to seal their neighborhood from the police and Army, Hendron said he felt nothing but contempt for the IRA, which attracts young ghetto Catholics.

"The IRA wants to see Catholics killed -- they want a bloody civil war and don't give a damn, even if thousands die," he said. "I am Irish and most people here are Irish. I want a united Ireland -- but without violence."

One of Hendron's patients is Kathleen Hall, 56, who has six children. Sitting in a small apartment in a neighborhood troubled for the past 12 years by sectarian protest and violence she said, "I was never a bitter person, but Protestant mobs burned down the house I was born in and they burned down the street next to the one I had moved to with my husband in 1969. bOnly us men and women with sticks and bottles kept them from burning down our street."

"I am scared -- if Bobby Sands dies things will be awful. I have a bad heart and my youngest boy is ill, but I am not going to give in," Hall said. On the wall behind her were a statue of Christ and a map of Ireland which includes northern Ireland as part of the same country -- long an aspiration of the one-third Catholic minority in Ulster.

"We have always been second-class citizens here -- the Protestants have all the key jobs," she said. "This is our country. They should give it to us. We are Irish."

Asked about the future she says, "I don't think anybody cares about us really -- not the British, not the south [the Irish Republic]. We are on our own."

Joe Reynolds, a retired bus conductor with balding gray hair and a paunchy stomach who takes pleasure in the small red tulips pushing up in his garden, has the long memory that is the hallmark of both Catholics and Protestants in Ulster.

"In 1921, I was six days old when the Protestants forced my family out of our house because we were Catholics. In 1969, they forced my wife and six children out of our house again -- and threatened to burn us out if we didn't go," he said in a quiet voice.

His brother-in-law was murdered by Protestant paramilitaries seven years ago, Reynolds said, "shot eight times while walking down the street." As he spoke, young children tossed stones at each other and passing British Army personnel carriers.

"This could all fizzle out and it would be good if it did," he said. "I have suffered enough in my lifetime. We have a good case here and violence only does us harm -- I don't support the IRA and they know it."

Not far from Reynolds house is the Andersonstown social club, filled with local Catholic men drinking a midday beer. The walls are covered with IRA slogans and posters calling for "Victory to the Hunger Strikers." There are jars with coins for families of IRA prisoners. No one would speak to a strange reporter. Finally the club manager said, "If you want to visit us you'll first need permission from the Provisional Sinn Fein," the political wing of the IRA.

A Catholic woman, saying she feared retaliation, asked not to be identified as she spoke of her worries in the west Belfast ghetto. "The British Army wrecked the house of a friend of mine two months ago while searching for arms, and soldiers have thrown by 13-year-old son against the wall to search him," she said. "I don't support the IRA, but if a man ran through here saying the British were after him, I'd help him. Most people here would."

Just a few blocks on the other side of the sectarian line in west Belfast in a little five-room house, George Chittick, 38, a civil servant and member of the Orange Order, a Protestant society that deeply influences the affairs of Ulster, spoke of 600 years of Ulster history he knows by heart. "I learned it on my father's knee, just like my son has," he said.

Orange is the Protestant color in Ulster -- symbol of William of Orange who defeated the Catholic King James II in 1690. Orange societies frequently march in processions through the city, emphasizing the Protestant dominance in northern Ireland.

Chittick and his family live in a Protestant neighborhood called "Bomb Alley" during the 1969 battles.

"The Roman Catholics bombed the church, the school and factories," he said. He would like the police and British Army to shoot bombers if there is trouble in Belfast now.

But asked about Protestants in the paramilitary Ulster Defense Association, whose members have often been jailed for murdering Catholics, Chittick said, "They are just a pack of bloody hoods like the IRA. God help us if we need them. They open their clubs on Sunday when a respectable person would be in church."

"I wouldn't let my son go to a UDA youth club. I'd fear he would end up with a gun," Chittick said. On the other hand, "if my son went against me and married a Roman Catholic, I'd disown him. He has been brought up a Protestant and will have every chance of marrying one. Children of a mixed marriage are caught in the middle -- you might as well leave the country."

Margaret Cousins, 34, is raising two sons and a daughter on her own in a housing development outside Belfast where she moved to escape troubled city streets. Her husband, Robert, is a convicted member of the Ulster Defense Association, serving a life sentence for murdering an unarmed Catholic, who she says was in the IRA.

"I blame a lot on the troubles," she said in her cramped living room. "Robert would never have done it were it not for the troubles, that is sure. He was a family man."

Her life story is similar to that of many people on both sides of Ulster's divide.The IRA put us out of our first house in a mixed neighborhood where I grew up in Belfast," she said softly. "One day, two masked IRA men came looking for my husband with a sawn-off shotgun. If he had been there they would have killed him. Most of the people in our street were Catholic -- they must have seen the IRA men. I grew up with Catholics, but we moved."

Two of her close friends were shot dead and one wounded in sectarian fighting during the last 10 years, she said. "The first year after Robert went in was the worst. . . I was 27 with the kids and I couldn't keep up the house. You get hard making all the decisions.

"I think it's stupid we don't get along and daft to fight on religious grounds. I want peace but I don't know how to get it. You can't turn back the clock. I believe in God and maybe God has planned this. I'd just like to wave a magic wand and have no troubles at all."

Striding into the Protestant meeting place in the town of Portadown south of Belfast, Harold McCusker of the Protestant official Unionist Party and member of the British Parliament, was greeted with a huge cheer by a crowd of 150 supporters gathered for a dance in his honor.

In the last eight years, nearly 200 of his constituents have died in terrorist attacks, most carried out by the IRA, he said. As matrons wearing Union Jack aprons served tea and sandwiches, he grabbed the microphone and said, "We are here to show people who want to destroy us and drive us out that they'll never do it." The crowd cheered again, this time longer.

Jim Davison, a 54-year-old former part-time police officer, stood in the hall's doorway as couples stomped to a folk tune. Four years ago he and another part-time police officer went to investigate a possible burglary, only to be ambushed by the IRA.

"We were doing our duty," Davison said as his face grew even more ruddy and his voice shook. "It was a hoax call, and my friend and I came out of the shop to get into our car. Another car pulls up and they spray us with 40 shots, killing my friend dead. A bullet tore off my left hand and they amputated at the elbow."

Raising his plastic left hand he emphasized the point. "Six friends of mine have been murdered by the IRA around here. You have the wrong picture if you think Catholics are being oppressed. It's the Protestant people who are suffering."