BELFAST, Northern Ireland — If a visitor landed in the center of Belfast with no knowledge of Northern Ireland’s volatile history, one could hardly suspect anything askew.

It’s a bustling area with shops, restaurants and pedestrian walkways. Yet, this is the capital of a country that suffered 3,524 killings from a period between 1969 and 2001 known as the Troubles.

“I suppose it’s unbelievable, the change that’s taken place,” said Mill Hill Missionary Father Oliver Scallan pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in central Belfast.

On May 8, an extraordinary event took place when leaders of two bitterly opposed political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, agreed to move forward in a devolved government called the Northern Ireland Assembly. Rev. Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein became the first minister and deputy first minister of the assembly, an event that still has people checking their newspapers twice to see these two men being cordial to each other.

Jason Hamilton, a Catholic convert, and native to Northern Ireland, said he’s “absolutely delighted.”

“Delighted [is] not strong enough,” he said. “The only way I can describe it is like if you’ve read, seen the film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in Narnia when it’s all that ice and snow and gradually the snow starts to melt and the flowers come out. That’s what Northern Ireland is like. This is 2007 and that’s what it feels like.”

For all the optimism about this stage in the peace process whose foundation was laid with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a wait and see attitude prevails.

The six counties of Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom, while the remaining 26 counties of the island comprise the Republic of Ireland. The whole land was part of the British Empire, but in 1921 as part of the Anglo-Irish treaty, the two regions became separate. Eventually the Irish Free State became the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign nation.

In the period following, the Catholic minority were subjected to discrimination. Catholics in Northern Ireland looked to the American civil rights movement for inspiration and emulated the non-violent marches.

When the police, Protestant extremists and the British Army used an excess of force to quell these marches, the provisional Irish Republican Army rose up. Particularly, the “Bloody Sunday” incident in Derry in 1972 was pivotal, leaving 14 dead of the 26 protestors shot by British Parachute Regiment troops.

Sinn Fein (imperfectly translated to “we ourselves”), established itself as the political wing of the IRA.

Both Cardinal Cathal Daly and Pope John Paul II strongly denounced violence in Northern Ireland as a means to achieve peace.

Remembering the Troubles

In 2006, Belfast had 6.8 million visitors, compared to 200,000 in 1994. This year, 31 cruise ships will call the city a port of call on their itinerary.

Fiona Ure, communications executive for the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau, mused about the irony of promoting a city as “normal” as a positive thing. But she wants people who come to Belfast to leave with good stories about the city in the hope they will return. She said that soon after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the tourism and business industries progressively increased.

Yet memories of the Troubles remain.

Alice Caldwell, 44, grew up near Falls Road in Catholic West Belfast during the thick of the Troubles. Her family home was taken over by British troopers at least six times. Once, when she was 10 and babysitting at a neighbor’s home, a British army vehicle called a Saracen was hit by a grenade and the injured soldiers streamed into the house cursing and ordering her into the kitchen. Caldwell still is vigilant.

“Even in my home, I have to sit facing the door,” said Caldwell.

Lord Wallace Browne, a Democratic Unionist Party member of the Legislative Assembly in the Northern Ireland Assembly, remembers the Belfast City Center of the 1970s. Security gates surrounded City Hall and the entrance to Donegal Place, a popular shopping street.

Before entering stores, shoppers had to open their handbags and raise their arms. Bomb threats were common throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s as the IRA and other paramilitaries took action. In addition to the IRA, there were other Republican (pro-united Ireland) and Loyalist (pro-Britain) paramilitaries, along with an influx of British troops and the police force involved.

Many citizens not involved in the conflict paid the ultimate price.

Despite the progress, Catholic life in Northern Ireland is quite a bit different from the United States.

Yearly, on the night of July 11, massive bonfires are lit and then on the next day, Orange Order marches celebrate the 1690 victory of Protestant Prince William of Orange over Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne.

Once a major source of contention, efforts have been made to give these more of a family atmosphere. And in the last two years they have passed without major incident.

Still many Catholics vacate the area during this time to avoid the whole thing, which includes major traffic disruptions.

New Evangelization

On Wednesday evenings in a convent chapel in South Belfast, the Catholic group Youth 2000 gathers for their prayer meeting. The organization is dedicated to reaching out to men and women 16 to 35, particularly those farthest away from the faith. Though the group is open to everyone, faith identity is not as openly discussed in public.

“Religion is not an issue that you can just bring up,” said member Lana Wilson.

However, this chapter of Youth 2000 has done its part in an all-Ireland promotion of the Knock Prayer Festival held at the end of July at the Marian apparition shrine in County Mayo. It is the organization’s largest event of the year, and members hope those attending will have an amazing experience that will then bring them to local chapters.

Flyers for the event were handed out openly to the public in the north, though not in Protestant neighborhoods. They clearly identified the event as Catholic.

Hamilton, founder of this Youth 2000 chapter, is not hesitant to explain why he believes the peace process has taken such a positive turn especially in the last year or so: long dedication to prayer from both sides of the community, particularly an emphasis on the Rosary and the Eucharist.

As a convert, he had read about the Rosary’s power to bring peace in strife-laden countries and wondered why there had not been an organized effort to promote the devotion in Northern Ireland. But a “little nun from America” who was invited over by Youth 2000 was able to unite Catholic groups such as the Legion of Mary, Regnum Christi and Human Life International for 54-day Rosary crusades, he said. Eucharistic vigils were also important in the last couple of years.

Hamilton recalled that the day after a Eucharistic procession up Falls Road the IRA agreed to decommission their weapons. Another time after a Rosary crusade, Paisley, who had been known to be extremely anti-Catholic, had a cordial meeting with Archbishop Seán Brady of Armagh.

In February 2007, joint Eucharistic adoration vigils were held in Belfast and Derry with the theme “Nothing Is Impossible to God” in reference to the Annunciation. On March 26, the feast of the Annunciation, Paisley agreed that he would go into government with Sinn Fein. That was in sharp contrast with what he had said the previous July 12 — that it would be “over his dead body” for the political party to be in the government of Northern Ireland.

Hamilton said the unity of organizations and not overall numbers were the secret of the campaign’s success.

“The Lord doesn’t need big numbers, but he does need people who are committed and are willing to give him everything and we were,” said Hamilton.

Toward the Future

There have been significant changes in this country in the last nine years, particularly in 2007. The name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was changed to Police Service of Northern Ireland to diminish Catholic distrust in the police. Currently, 22% of the force is Catholic; the new policy requires that 50% of new additions be Catholic.

But although this is the first time Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have worked together, it would be naïve to think the peace process is completely over. The Northern Ireland Assembly had been started before and suspended back to direct rule from Britain.

Daithi McKay, a member of the Legislative Assembly from Sinn Fein, said in the next five to 10 years he would like to see “first and foremost” that his party would always like to see a united Ireland. However, this Ireland would include an enshrined Bill of Rights for all people of the island, including the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and those with a Unionist (pro-Britain) background.

“It’s important that there is a place for those of the Unionist, Protestant, Loyalist tradition,” said McKay. “We would like to see an Ireland of equals.”

Lord Browne had another take on this: “I think the people here in Northern Ireland, the vast majority wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, and that has always been shown by a referendum, and I believe that our best interests are served by being in the United Kingdom.

“But having said that, I think we have to work very closely with the Republic of Ireland government on issues that are beneficial to all the people on both sides, on both parts of this island.”

Alice Caldwell is glad she was not “brought up bitter,” and also has raised her children in the same way. Her children have friendships with Protestants, but she is cautious about what neighborhoods they go into. She is pleased with the recent governmental changes but does not think it will last. She favors a united Ireland but does not want a return of violence. Father Scallan believes that learning about the different traditions of the Irish and Anglo people are key to further progress.

“I think we all have to inherit and to own these traditions. I think this will be something wonderful indeed,” he said. “We begin to own each other’s traditions, that nobody is excluded from a tradition and I think this will require on all of us a tolerance and perhaps a breadth of imagination and understanding and that people don’t feel threatened.”

He also mentioned study of the Celtic Christian traditions that existed before the Reformation as a possible means of evangelization.

When asked about a united Ireland, Hamilton laughed heartily. To him this is not important at all.

“In the eternal scheme of things, I doubt if Our Lord is as worried about our nationality as we are in Ireland,” remarked Hamilton.

He referenced a meeting this March between Irish president Mary McAleese, and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Apparently, the Holy Father told McAleese that it would be “a very powerful Christian witness,” to other regions of conflict with a religious current such as the Middle East and the Balkans, if power-sharing worked in Northern Ireland.

Justin Bell writes from

Belfast, Northern Ireland.