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Belfast's surface normality masks deeper sectarian divide

Blue-uniformed women still hop onto every bus lumbering into the main Belfast shopping area to search for bombs - but now they hurry down the center aisles almost perfunctorily.

Taxis have been allowed back through the ugly, antiterrorist steel fences surrounding the downtown area. Some night life has returned. In the Roman Catholic slum of West Belfast, grass hides some of the worst devastation along the Falls Road.

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In short, the visitor returning after 21/2 years finds at least some semblance of normality in the capital of Northern Ireland.

Several miles out of town in Stormont Castle, James Prior, the man who runs Northern Ireland for the British government, agrees - but only up to a point.

Look closer, and the basic divide between Catholic and Protestant seems as deep as ever. The British secretary of state for Northern Ireland is hard put, in an interview, to come up with hopeful signs in the search for solutions.

There are no prospects at the moment that hard-line Protestant or Catholic leaders in the north are willing to talk to each other at all. Meanwhile, electoral support for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, has grown steadily, to 102,701 votes in the British general election of last June.

British officials say at least 10 percent of those votes were obtained fraudulently. But officials concede the total is still large and indicates rising support. Many local people claim that Catholic and Protestant communities are more isolated from each other today than for many years.

Mr. Prior, tacitly acknowledging this situation, can only promise that the British government will continue to pour a net sum of more than (STR)1.2 billion ($1.68 billion) into Ulster a year. Some 9,500 British troops remain on duty, helping police fight terrorists in West Belfast and along the border with the Irish Republic.

The number of troops is down from the peak of 12,000 some years ago, but there is little prospect of any further significant reductions soon.

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The new Northern Ireland Assembly, set up with high hopes in October 1982 to lead toward eventual self-government, is not working. The moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) boycotts it, and the official Unionist Party (Protestant) stays away to protest IRA terrorism.

The SDLP pins its hopes to the New Ireland Forum, an overall review of the Irish situation which it and the two main Irish parties are conducting in Dublin. The forum is expected to report later in the year. But no Protestant Unionist in the north will accept its findings if, as expected, they call for eventual Irish unity.

On the security front, more cooperation between southern and northern forces has hit the outlawed IRA hard. So has the testimony of informers.

Although the number of people killed (Catholic and Protestant) was down to 77 last year, 24 fewer than in 1981 and well below the 297 of 1976 and the 467 of 1972, terrorist violence still runs deep.

A study drawn up for the forum in Dublin shows 2,304 people killed and more than 24,000 injured in the north between Jan. 1, 1969, and June 30, 1983.

A British security official says: ''You could say that the security sitation is better now than for many years. But the political situation is worse.''

In the long term, Protestants must face the fact that the Catholic population is growing faster than their own. This makes the search for ways to guarantee minority rights more urgent, and, by arousing Protestant fears, more difficult.

Conventional wisdom is that 1 million Protestants still insist on staying part of the United Kingdom, while half a million Roman Catholics want union with the Catholic Irish Republic to the south.

In fact, British officials estimate that Catholics now make up 38 percent of the population instead of 33 percent.

Mr. Prior, a bluff, ruddy-faced, white-haired English landowner and senior Conservative politician, is quick to put his finger on what has happened.

The shadow of the Provisional IRA hunger strike of 1981 hangs over Ulster. Prejudices on both sides have deepened since Maze prisoner Bobby Sands starved to death amid worldwide headlines. Nine other IRA men also died.

''Statistically the situation has improved,'' Prior said. ''But the public doesn't feel any safer, I think. The murders that do take place - the young politician Edgar Graham recently, and the shooting of the elderly Pentecostals near the border - make a bigger impact . . . than all the killings in 1972. . . .

Prior has been under pressure since a government report on the breakout of 38 prisoners from the Maze last September spotlighted negligence by guards. He told Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher he saw no reason to resign. Apparently she did not press him.

''The minority in Northern Ireland have rights and they must be respected,'' he told this newspaper. ''If only we could get it established in people's minds here and in the south that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK for the foreseeable future, it would enable more progress to be made. . . . Unionists would lose some of the fears of a sellout. . . .''

Personally, Prior leans toward trying to find a solution for Ireland by federating the two halves in a wider European context. But Mrs. Thatcher is opposed to European influence, and the idea has lapsed.

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