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Neighbors at Odds in N. Ireland

SHAWN POGATCHNIKFebruary 10, 2000

LISBURN, Northern Ireland (AP) _ They’re next-door neighbors, but the British Protestants of bustling Lisburn and the Irish Catholics of grim Poleglass remain worlds apart as their country’s power-sharing government fades to black.

Northern Ireland’s 2-month-old administration of Protestants and Catholics, the intended centerpiece of the 1998 Good Friday accord, is likely to be stripped of its powers Friday. Britain hopes this will forestall its total collapse in the face of Protestant demands for a start to Irish Republican Army disarmament.

``Our leaders gave too much and got nothing back. Now we’ve got an IRA terrorist in our government. Who’d be sad to see the back of that arrangement?″ said Johnston Kirkpatrick, a 40-year-old Protestant taxi driver from Lisburn.

In Poleglass, Eamonn Ward, a 34-year-old Catholic construction worker, blamed the Protestant unionists. ``The British government’s given in to threats from the unionists. They say it’s because the IRA won’t disarm, but the unionists just won’t treat us as equals,″ he said.

Whether talking to key protagonists like David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and Gerry Adams of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein _ or to their grassroots equivalents in Kirkpatrick and Ward _ it’s clear now that the two sides never agreed on the terms of their union.

``There wasn’t any honeymoon like there needed to be. Trimble started hen-pecking Adams at the altar,″ said Ward, who had hoped the four-party coalition would work smoothly.

``The whole thing was a shotgun wedding. It only happened because Trimble took some big risks. But they haven’t paid off,″ said Kirkpatrick. ``Thank God us Prods (Protestants) believe in divorce.″

Ward’s dashed hopes and Kirkpatrick’s palpable relief reflect the widely different experiences of their communities.

Kirkpatrick’s Lisburn is the well-scrubbed model of an Ulster ``garrison town.″ The British army has its Northern Ireland headquarters here; many of its Protestant families have members in the locally recruited regiment or the province’s well-paid police force.

But beneath a comfortably middle-class veneer lies paramilitary menace. An outlawed paramilitary group called the Ulster Defense Association controls many Lisburn businesses. The UDA’s decision in 1994 to stop slaying Catholics at random hasn’t slowed its pursuit of criminal rackets.

Neighboring Poleglass is the last in a chain of Catholic districts that stretch from inner west Belfast to Lisburn’s outskirts. As such Poleglass forms the vanguard, as many Protestants see it, of a growing and unwelcome community.

Within its warren of gray stucco welfare row houses reside some of Northern Ireland’s poorest residents. The only color comes from militant wall murals honoring dead Irish Republican Army figures.

No policemen have lived in Poleglass for three lawless decades. The IRA, by contrast, imposes nighttime order, confronting local hoodlums and glue-sniffers with the threat of broken limbs or banishment, a form of violence not covered by its 1997 cease-fire.

``When you’re reared in Poleglass, you survive by hoping for something better and pushing hard to get it,″ said Ward, who voted ``yes″ in 1998 in the referendum that ratified the Good Friday accord. Catholics almost universally backed the pact.

Ward voted again that year to put his local Sinn Fein activist into the new Northern Ireland legislature.

Kirkpatrick, like many alienated Protestants, didn’t bother to vote in either election. Those Protestants who did were split almost 50-50 between politicians for and against Trimble.

As the British government quickly paroled imprisoned IRA and UDA members in support of the Good Friday deal, both groups balked on cooperating with a disarmament commission. The Ulster Unionists in turn refused to form the Cabinet for more than a year.

Under international pressure, Trimble last November finally agreed to accept Sinn Fein as government colleagues on condition that IRA disarmament would soon commence and conclude by the Good Friday accord’s May deadline.

To a chorus of Protestant protests Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness _ the IRA’s one-time senior commander _ became minister of education. No disarmament followed.

For Kirkpatrick, a former soldier who lost friends to IRA bombs, disarmament isn’t optional. It’s the only way he’ll ever trust his neighbors.

``There’s IRA men in Poleglass who were targeting me six, seven years ago and they’re still there. They should all be doing life along with the UDA. Instead all the terrorists are out of prison. They’re stronger than ever,″ he said.

Ward insists Protestants demand disarmament only as a device for keeping Sinn Fein out of office. He agrees with Kirkpatrick that the IRA will never disarm. He, too, cites a lack of trust.

``The only guns I ever see in Poleglass are carried by unionists in uniform,″ he said. ``The IRA aren’t using their guns. That ought to be good enough for everybody.″

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