A tale of two cities

March 07, 2003 ,

IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' The famous opening lines of Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities sum up well the contrast between the light of peace which seems to be shining from Northern Ireland, and the gathering clouds of war with Iraq.

A Tale of Two Cities came to mind when I travelled from Cardiff to Belfast recently.

On arrival in Belfast in struck me just how similar it is to Cardiff. Both have populations of around 300,000.

Both are port cities, with swish dock developments. In Belfast their equivalent of the Millennium Centre is already built, and there is talk of a new stadium.

Both are Victorian cities, with rows of terraced houses reaching out towards leafy suburbs.
But there is one huge difference. Belfast is a city divided upon itself. In some places the border lines are invisible, but everyone understands which is Protestant and which is Catholic territory.

In other parts of the city the border is clearly marked; the human equivalent of a dog urinating on a lamppost to mark its territory.

At flashpoints like Short Strand in East Belfast, so called ‘peace walls' have been built to keep the two sides apart. On one side the kerb stones are painted red, white and blue with union flags everywhere.

On the other side the colours are green, white and gold.

But apart from the symbols of sectarianism you could be on any street in Cardiff.

I went with a group of MPs to visit a community centre in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast. The area is very similar to Ely with the same strong sense of community and social problems.

The residents told us of their problems: lack of educational opportunity, housing, crime, domestic violence, drugs and car theft. These are problems familiar to MPs who represent large housing estates like Ely.

But the difference between Springfield Road and Cowbridge Road West was that one side is Catholic and the other Protestant. The community project brought people together from both sides to discuss their common problems in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

I spoke afterwards to two of the leaders of the project, and discovered just how remarkable it was.

One was Tommy Gorman, former IRA prisoner who had become a republican hero by swimming to freedom from the prison ship Maidstone in Belfast Lough.

The second was Noel Large. He had served 16 years of a life sentence for 4 murders he committed as a loyalist gunman.

He told me how, as a young man, he had become a killer. How he had been aroused by the inflammatory speeches of Ian Paisley and others. How he was filled with remorse for what he had done, and wanted to work to build peace.

And how he did not want his three year old child to grow up in a society where hatred and killing were the norm.

A tale of two cities and of two people.

Ordinary working class people in an ordinary city like Cardiff, trying to overcome their own terrible, extraordinary, past.