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Letter from Ulster: swinging cricket bats and flying petrol bombs

It was one of the loveliest, most peaceful sights I have ever seen -- smooth manicured green grass, tall trees nodding all around in a gentle breeze, a picturesque white clubhouse with black trim, cricket players in white out in the center of the ground, and the sweet click of ball on bat.

It was everything cricket should be on a late afternoon in early summer: the clean smell of new-mown grass, an international batsman hitting to all parts of the ground and scoring 93 before (with apologies to American readers for the jargon) stranding himself in mid-pitch trying for a second run, hot tea and cake at the end of the innings, and solemn officials rolling the pitch between innings.

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It all awoke a flood of memories from my own cricketing childhood in Australia. I would be there still, drinking it all in, if my host hadn't dragged me away as the shadows lengthened. . . .

And all this, smack in the middle of what the world press invariably calls "strife-torn," "violent," and "terror-filled" Northern Ireland.

A visitor expecting to find all six counties aflame with petrol bombs is somewhat surprised to find the "war zone" largely confined to the tenement slums of west Belfast, to Roman Catholic-controlled Londonderry, and to areas along the border with the Irish Republic to the south.

For 80 percent of Northern Ireland's 1.5 million people, the violence happens somewhere else. West Belfast is as remote as the far side of the moon.

Of course, it isn't quite as simple as that.

The sectarian violence affects the whole population. It has produced direct rule from London, 11,000 British troops, world headlines, and a reluctance of big business to set up shop and create jobs here.

Fundamentally, it has created a continuing sense that problems caused by the partition of Ireland 60 years ago may go on indefinitely.

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Most of those who don't set foot in west Belfast are Protestants. Many (but not all) of them also reject any form of power-sharing with minority Catholics.

Many just try to live their lives with as little disruption as possible. On the day IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died, Belfast newspapers carried their usual list of "what's on tomorrow" -- normality trying to coexist with tragedy.

Olympic swimming star Duncan Goodhew was to hold a swimming clinic at the aquatic show at Grove Pool. Oxford professor J. L. Ackrill was to lecture on "the Socratic paradoxes" at Queens University.

One of the ways violence intrudes is seen in the paintings of young Belfast artist Dermot Seymour.

His first exhibition recently contrasted vivid scenes of color and beauty with symbols of violence and terror: a brilliant butterfly on a street of bricked up slums and stone-littered streets . . . wild flowers in a field beneath a hovering helicopter.

Seymour lived for a long time in the lower Shankill Road, a Protestant area frequently marred by violence. His sense of beauty struggles to pierce the scenes of everyday life.

The long violent years also produce a life style in Belfast rich in contrast and the unexpected for locals -- and visitors.

It seemed natural to ask the scorekeepers at the cricket match (Waringstown vs. Woodvale) if all the players on the field were Protestant. I cannot recall ever before asking about the religion of a man playing cricket.

"No," came the cheerful reply, as though it was the most natural question in the world, "one of them is a Catholic --look, the man with the gray hair, bowling now. . . ."

"But Catholics play cricket, of course," interrupted another man. "We played a team from the south once, and lost, what's more. . . ."

Local residents don't bat an eye at the sight of khaki armored cars called Saracens, of dark-green-uniformed police sighting down the long barrels of their rifles at street corners, or of armored police Land Rovers escorting gasoline tanker trucks. ("If the IRA could hijack just one of those trucks, they'd have enough petrol for petrol bombs to last for months," said a passing taxi-driver casually.)

One night, a friend driving me back to my hotel came up behind a police truck with a sharpshooter sitting at the back, rifle at the ready, eyes scanning nearby Catholic rooftops.

The friend switched off his headlights as we waited to move off again. The policeman responded with a wave of his hand. Once past, our headlights went on again.

I asked why. The friend looked puzzled. To him it was all routine. "Oh, the lights," he said. "Well, I turned them off so the policeman could see out, and to avoid spotlighting him as a target for a bomb or a bullet."

When I said that sometimes I could hardly credit that I was still in the British Isles, he said grimly, "You get used to a lot of things here. . . . Life goes on, you know. It has to."

Another Protestant said: "When I hear a friend of mine has been killed or wounded, I am angry for a moment at the IRA and then I just go on living. It sounds callous, I know, but you just do go on. I suppose man can adapt to anything if he has to."

About the only people benefiting from Belfast's troubles these days is the sole remaining downtown hotel, the Europa. It has been awash for weeks with international television crews, photographers, reporters, and radio broadcasters , most of them on lavish expense accounts. The major US television networks have hired taxis by the week. Taxi-drivers compete to telephone in tips of possible violence. Some photographers even staged pictures and offered money for shots of petrol bombs being thrown beforem Sands' death.

I talked to a Chilean radio reporter busy filing news of Bobby Sands to Roman Catholic audiences in Argentina and Mexico. I talked to a West German television correspondent weary of endless forays through city streets and himself surprised at the interest in Europe in the story.

And I heard of the third-world reporter, fresh from Lebanon, who rushed into the Europa hotel lobby asking, "Where are the Christian areas?"

Wearily, another journalist replied, "Al l of them."

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