"What people in America don't realize is that 95 percent of us live normal lives here," insisted a Belfast business executive in his firm's board room near the city center. "The violence and things like the hunger strike are magnified by the media and give a distorted picture."

It is a frequent complaint of businessmen and middle-class people among the two-thirds Protestant majority in British-ruled Northern Ireland. They point to Belfast's comfortable country club suburbs, the neat-as-a-pin towns and villages in the bucolic Ulster countryside, the rolling green hills of rich farmland, and the rugged seacoast and profusion of lakes, rivers and streams offering some of the best fishing and most beautiful scenery in Europe.

Interviews and opinion polls also indicate that many Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are not Irish nationalists and a good number of Ulster Protestants, far from being die-hard British loyalists or religious bigots, say they get on well with Catholics and concede, nearly always not for quotation, that unification of Ulster with the neighboring Republic of Ireland may be inevitable and preferable.

The Belfast business executive counts himself among such moderate Protestants. "Some day we may wake up and find that the Irish-Ulster border is pointless," he said. "But it will take people getting to know and trust each other for many more generations, perhaps a hundred years."

Yet everywhere are signs of considerable abnormality. Tourists are scarce during what once was the busy summer season. Protestant farmers in the fertile hills along the border with the Republic of Ireland, where dozens have been assassinated during the past decade by Irish nationalist terrorists, are wary of strangers and deeply suspicious of their Catholic neighbors, keep guns by their bedsides, and stock flares to summon help if attacked.

Corrugated metal stockades and high barbed wire, much of it blackened by rioters' assaults with molotov cocktails, protect Ulster police and British Army posts. Police and soldiers patrol in menacing armored personnel carriers with guns at the ready. Young policemen in heavy flak jackets guard bridges and major intersections in Belfast during rush hour with their fingers on triggers of automatic weapons. The graffiti of sectarian strife and social deprivation covers stone walls, bricked-up buildings and ugly metal barriers dividing Belfast's Catholic and Protestant inner-city ghettos in some of the worst slums in Europe.

The hunger strike campaign to win political-prisoner status by Irish nationalist inmates in the Maze Prison outside Belfast, during which 10 prisoners have died, has brought the province to a potentially key point.

Britain, which has ruled Northern Ireland directly from London for a decade, is feeling increased international and domestic sentiment to take a new approach and find a political solution. A major national debate is under way during which suggested alternatives to direct rule have included an independent Ulster and union with the Irish Republic to the south. At the same time, however, the traditional polarization between the Protestant and Catholic communities has worsened, adding to the difficulty of any such solution.

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the reminders of a decade of violence are never far away and the strains never far from the surface.

Traveling to Belfast from London, the first jarring experience is the extraordinary security for the British Airways flight to what still is a provincial capital of the same country. All baggage, including umbrellas, must be surrendered at the gate. Each piece is inspected for weapons or bombs and sealed in clear plastic bags. Each passenger is given a thorough body search.

Everyone is carefully scrutinized by plainclothes officers of Britain's Special Branch, roughly the equivalent of the FBI or Secret Service. Some travelers are stopped, as this reporter once was, for questioning about identification and reasons for traveling to Northern Ireland.

Those who cannot satisfy the questioner can be detained for up to a week or more without charge under Britain's Prevention of Terrorism laws. Since the enactment of these laws in 1974 and 1976 in response to the terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, more than 5,000 people have been detained for questioning, but only a few hundred were ever charged with crimes.

Irish Catholic residents of Northern Ireland or elsewhere in Britain and citizens of the Republic of Ireland appear to arouse the most suspicion. "I no longer travel here on my Irish passport," said an Irish banker who spends much of his time in London working for a European Community financial organization. "I use my Common Market identification instead. Irish people are always being stopped at the airport."

Once in Belfast, the traveler finds the city center shopping district and the biggest hotel, the Europa, enclosed with metal barriers and barbed wire to keep out terrorists. Anyone entering the shopping precinct or the Europa must go through checkpoints where bags and briefcases are checked and some people are searched. Many office buildings also have security checkpoints. Police and Army patrols pass by constantly.

The Europa was bombed more than two dozen times before it made its security tight enough. A 12-story high landmark, it is one of the tallest buildings in Belfast, a red brick, 19th century industrial city whose steady postwar economic decline has been accelerated by the sectarian warfare and the city's worldwide image of military occupation, bombings and riots.

In a recent wave of Provisional Irish Republican Army bombings, a West Belfast hotel was destroyed and the windows of several downtown office buildings broken. Perhaps more disruptive to daily life and costly to stores and businesses are frequent bomb scares, in which parts of the city center are evacuated or rush-hour traffic is snarled.

The British government pays millions of dollaras each year in compensation to people injured by terrorists, relatives of those who have been killed and owners of businesses damaged by bombs.

Pointing to the extensive damage from the recent bombing in downtown Belfast, a Catholic Irish nationalist who said he does not approve of terrorism nevertheless added with a smile, "That's going to cost Her Majesty's government another few hundred thousand pounds . How long will they want to keep paying?"

Driving through the Catholic and Protestant ghettos of Belfast, a visitor must chart a course through mazes of closed streets and roadblocks designed to help the security forces contain riots and prevent raids by Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British loyalists on each other's neighborhoods.

A motorist driving from one side of the zig-zagging sectarian divide to another often is stopped at a British Army checkpoint and asked for identification, proof of vehicle ownership and an explanation of where he is coming from and going to. A young soldier, guarded by others with guns pointed in both directions up and down the street, puts all the information on sheets to be fed into a computer before the motorist is allowed to continue.

Catholics complain that these roadblocks, particularly when manned by Protestant Ulster Army reservists rather than British troops, are used to delay them for hours.

"That's a nice car you have there," a soldier at one checkpoint said to a motorist. "Where do you get the money for a car like that?" His tone was bantering, but as he read through the driver's papers his implication was clear: was this another of the many cars stolen in Belfast every day? It was the kind of encounter that the driver, whose papers were in order, would remember.

More than 11,000 British troops, rotated for several months at a time from different regiments of the military, are now stationed in Northern Ireland. Twice as many were there at the peak of sectarian violence in the mid-1970s. Most front-line security duties, along with ordinary law enforcement, have been taken over by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the nearly all-Protestant police force. It has been tripled in size to 7,500 officers and made more professional and less sectarian under British supervision. Its paucity of Catholic officers is blamed by police on an unwillingness by Catholics to join for fear of reprisals.

Supplementing the police and Army are thousands of Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary reservists and the province's part-time militia, the Ulster Defense Regiment, something like an American state's National Guard contingent.

Many Catholics complain that among these reservists are men from notoriously bigoted and brutal armed Protestant forces, which were disbanded by the British. Catholics also resent being stopped, questioned about their personal lives and activities and sometimes harassed by Protestant neighbors who have legal access to a uniform and gun.

Catholic animosity to the Protestant Ulster security forces goes back a long time, still runs deep and sometimes is justified by documented abuses. But the British Army remains the symbol of what looks and feels like a military occupation of Catholic ghettos, particularly in West Belfast, and British soldiers have been accused of their share of bigotry and harassment.

Middle-class residents who turned out in Sunday best for funerals of Irish nationalist hunger strikers in West Belfast referred bitterly to the massed security forces around the perimeter of these events as "those British bastards."

"If they pull the troops out, it will amount to civil war" between Protestants and Catholics, said Kathleen Hall, 56, an ardent Catholic Irish nationalist in West Belfast, echoing the assessment of British officials. "But somebody would have to come in and stop it, like the United Nations.

"I think we would be better off with them than with the British," she added. "I've seen kids thrown up against walls and searched. My friends have kids killed or in jail. My daughters serve on the hunger strike supporters' campaign. The British treat people badly."

Many of the repeated street searches and detentions without charge serve primarily to enable police and Army intelligence officers to update their records on people they suspect of terrorist connections, although officials deny this when speaking on the record.

Suspected members of Protestant terrorist groups are often treated the same way, particularly in the Protestant ghettos of West Belfast. Betty McMillan lives in a small row house whose windows are covered with heavy metal screening to keep out stones thrown periodically by Catholic youths.

McMillan's family is known for its connections to Protestant paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defense Association. Her late husband, a welfare officer for the UDA, was detained for questioning four or five times during the past decade, she said, and their house was searched repeatedly. One of her sons is in the Maze Prison on a bank robbery conviction, she said, and two others are members of the UDA. A nephew also is serving a long sentence in the Maze for killing a Catholic man. She tries now to keep her youngest son, 15, at home. "My young ones have known nothing else but the troubles," she said.

In the Irish Catholic ghetto, streets are cluttered with the debris of the previous night's rioting and attacks on police and Army patrols. There are some Irish nationalist neighborhoods in West Belfast and in Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city, where anyone runs the risk of having his vehicle hijacked and turned into a fiery addition to a street barricade.

Psychologists describe the generation of Catholic and Protestant toughs who have grown up with the sectarian violence here as having adjusted to the tension, bloodshed and death by becoming participants who thrill in lawlessness. Their thievery is such a problem in Catholic and Protestant ghettos that paramilitary groups have tried to mete out their own punishment, beating offenders or shooting them in the legs.

Even women who believe strongly in the Catholic Irish nationalist or Protestant British loyalist causes worry about their sons. At the funeral of Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die at the Maze, a woman who told a reporter that Sands "was murdered by British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher" could be overheard warning a friend as Sands' casket passed, "That could be your boy, if you don't start doing something about it."

There is no government-run public transportation in the Catholic ghettos of West Belfast. The void is filled instead by old London-style black taxis that take multiple fares and operate like unscheduled buses. Taxis in the rest of the city are newer sedans usually owned and driven by Protestants. A visitor late for a plane will find he is seldom stopped at the Army checkpoint outside the airport in one of these taxis, but faces the delay of an identity check if he rides in a black cab.

Following too closely behind one of the many police and Army armored personnel carriers patrolling West Belfast can be disconcerting and dangerous. Their back doors are usually open with unsmiling policemen or soldiers aiming automatic rifles at the traffic behind. During day or night they are targets for barrages of stones, bricks and molotov cocktails from bands of youths, many not old enough to be called teen-agers.

When pinned down, the security forces respond by firing plastic bullets to disperse the rioters. Thousands have been fired this year alone. They are supposed to be aimed below the waist and from a distance to avoid fatalities, but they have killed seven persons in recent months in Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast -- three of them children -- and injured more than 100 others. Catholics note bitterly that British officials said they were too unsafe to use against rioters in English cities earlier this summer.

Sniper attacks on police and soldiers have increased markedly in recent months. More than 500 were recorded by police since the hunger strike began in March, although only a small fraction have resulted in deaths or serious injuries.

Officials said the weapons, including high-powered and automatic military rifles and rocket launchers, are mostly American-made and smuggled into Ireland from the United States.

U.S. government sources have said the FBI recently may have cracked a major gun-running operation from the United States to the outlawed Provisional IRA. But British authorities said the hunger strike appears to have increased the flow of money from Irish Americans to the Provisionals.

Protestant paramilitary groups, paticularly in the loyalist ghettos alongside nationalist neighborhoods in West Belfast, also have access to guns smuggled in by militant Protestant supporters in Scotland. Several shootings of Irish Catholics in West Belfast have been blamed on Protestant gunmen, and it is difficult to find anyone on either side in West Belfast who does not know a victim of terrorist violence or someone who has been convicted of a terrorist crime.

Middle-class Ulster residents who complain about media concentration on the Catholic and Protestant ghettos sometimes express their own prejudices and fears if pressed hard enough, but almost never for quotation. They do not want to offend business clients of the other religion or neighbors with whom they insist they get along well in mixed suburban neighborhoods. They also want to counter a media image that costs tourism, businesses and jobs.

There are signs, however, that the middle class is becoming more politicized. More Protestants than ever voted for the Rev. Ian Paisley's hard-line loyalist and overtly anti-Catholic Democratic Unionist Party in recent local elections. Meanwhile, the nonsectarian Alliance party lost much of its vote to Protestant loyalist and Catholic Irish nationalist parties, and small, extreme parties supporting the hunger strike gained.

At Queen's University in Belfast, long regarded as an oasis of nonsectarianism for students educated separately until the age of 18 in religiously segregated schools, a left-wing Catholic Irish nationalist who supports the hunger strikers' demands was elected president of the Student Union. Already, there are reportedly several hundred more militant Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists in the student body who have recently become more aggressive in making their views known, including breaking up meetings of campus speakers with whom they disagree.

Even if they are unrepresentative in their extremes, the Catholic and Protestant ghettos harbor serious social and economic problems that could further destabilize Ulster if the hunger strike ended soon. Northern Ireland has by far the highest unemployment rate, lowest average family income, highest proportion of families on welfare, and worst housing and other social conditions of any comparably sized region in Britain.

Outside the sectarian ghettos, a visitor never knows whether he is among Catholics or Protestants until it is clearly indicated in conversation. But studies show that Ulster children learn by their early teens to differentiate people by their accents, names and clothing styles among other signs.

"You are really dealing with 400 years of history every day here," an Ulster Protestant member of the British Parliament explained, "and so complicated a mix of emotions that you can never peg a person or know whether what you say to him is going to set him off. There is no other place like it." Next: The hunger strike