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For Northern Irish republicans, life is hard, but life is good

Despite suffering similar – if not worse – financial woes, Northern Ireland's Catholics are upbeat about the future, and a world apart from the unionist rioting that has racked Belfast.

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Standing on the Andersonstown Road in West Belfast, it's clear to see that the streets are far from bustling, but not because of protests. This is republican West Belfast, which has not been touched by the flag controversy. It's heavy rainfall, not the threat of violence, that's keeping people indoors.

The mood among republicans couldn't be more different from that among loyalists: fear and anger are replaced by joy and a sense of hope for the future.

But is it all an illusion? After all, a united Ireland is still not in the cards, and despite loyalist claims, working-class Catholics are no better off than their Protestant neighbors.

In fact, writing in Britain's Guardian newspaper in January, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams noted that of the 40 most-deprived districts in Northern Ireland, 36 are nationalist – something of a startling admission, given that his party dominates these areas and is therefore responsible for their status.

And Mr. Adams has even called for a "border poll" on Northern Ireland's future: remain in the United Kingdom, or unite with the rest of Ireland? Provision is made for this under the 1998 Belfast Agreement peace settlement, but few expect it to happen anytime soon.

So why are republicans so confident?

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Eamonn McCann, a noted socialist commentator and civil rights activist, says, "What the Catholic community wanted was full equality, so the settlement has delivered."

But he lays the blame for nationalists' economic woes directly at Sinn Féin's feet as well. "Many would think [Adams] has some nerve, citing deprivation in West Belfast. Surely that's an admission of failure by Sinn Féin?

"Republicans abandoned the ideals over which the armed struggle had been fought, what people were sent out to die for, and what people were killed for," he says.

Someone who wanted more than equality within British-administered Northern Ireland is Anthony McIntyre, a former Irish Republican Army militant who split with Sinn Féin. Now a journalist and academic, Mr. McIntyre doesn't want a return to war, but is deeply critical of Adams, Sinn Féin, and the peace process. "Adams is into smoke-and-mirror politics," he says.

"What have the people got to be optimistic about? Adams abandoned them and went south [where he sits in the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland]. Republicans display confidence, but what have they got to look forward to? I think, deep down, they know they've got nothing but equal representation and [a] mini-minister oiling the wheels of British rule in Ireland."

Sinn Féin activist Eoin Ó Broin naturally sees things more positively, pointing to a Protestant flight to the suburbs as a reason for the differing community outlooks.

"Take two neighboring areas of Belfast: [republican] New Lodge and [loyalist] Tiger's Bay. You have the same levels of deprivation, housing need, and so on, but in other ways things are markedly different," says Mr. Ó Broin. "In New Lodge, you get young people with third-level education who return and volunteer and work in small business. Education is not just seen as a way of getting out of the area. In Tiger's Bay, there was outward migration of people who had initiative that left a gaping capacity deficit."

Paddy Hoey, of the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies, says the two dynamics are rooted in practical politics. "There are elements of 'defenderism' in the loyalist psyche, but there is also a postindustrial vacuum in loyalism," he says. "The manufacturing industries they worked in are gone and the organized labor [movement] has gone. It has no institutions on which to focus."

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