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Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK

A fond farewell to Northern Ireland

Last Good Friday one of the BBC's long term Northern Ireland observers, Mark Devenport, was part of the press pack gathered in the cold outside Stormont, in his role as Ireland Correspondent.

This year he is in America having just taken up a new post as United Nations Correspondent. From across the Atlantic, he looks back on his time in Northern Ireland and hazards a guess about what the future might bring.

[ image: Mark Devenport:
Mark Devenport: " There are enough people of goodwill who realise that some way forward has to be found"
It was my misfortune that one of the last reports I filed for the BBC from Belfast was all about people coming back to the province to take advantage of its new found peace.

From South Africa, New Zealand and Australia the "wild geese" have been returning, seeking to make a fresh start back home.

In Bangor in County Down a couple told me how they believed the quality of life Northern Ireland offered them and their children could not be matched anywhere else. They talked about its beautiful countryside, the excellence of its schools and hospitals and the friendliness of its people. They insisted that even the butter was better.

As the interview progressed my heart sank. It brought home exactly what I was giving up. After 12 years working for the BBC in Belfast, I regarded myself as almost naturalised. I wanted another challenge in my professional career. But I never grew tired of living in Northern Ireland and fantasised about finding another job which I could commute to from Belfast.

Many of my English friends couldn't understand this. Some never visited me in Belfast. They didn't want anything to do with "that violent place". They didn't know what they were missing. I suppose that was my fault, along with all the other journalists.

The good and bad times

Naturally we concentrated on the 'troubles' because that was news. We didn't do justice to all the other aspects of life that make Northern Ireland so enticing. Nor did we repeat often enough the statistic showing that you are more likely to die in a traffic accident in the province than as a result of terrorism.

In the 12 years I lived in Belfast there were some very bleak times, but a lot of good times too. Yes, it was depressing driving towards Drumcree year after year to witness the worst stubbornness and bigotry Northern Ireland has to offer.

And there were so many sickening atrocities, culminating in the numbing horror of Omagh last August. But there was also the creeping transformation of Belfast from a city with limited nightlife and an underdeveloped commercial sector to the place I know today, packed with places to eat and drink and sporting a whole new architecture.

One neighbourhood beside the River Lagan used to be a tough loyalist enclave - I recall some local youths threatening me to get out of the area after an IRA attack nearby a few years ago. Today blocks of "yuppie" flats dominate the district - one of a number of new developments which have transformed the banks of the cleaned up Lagan.

More important than buildings of course are the province's people. Some mindsets might still seem stuck in previous centuries. But amongst my friends in Belfast I can number writers, lawyers, actors, social workers, and business people who are as pluralist, lively and full of fresh ideas as anyone elsewhere in Western Europe.

The Good Friday Agreement

It hardly seems a year since I reported on the Agreement and the 70% backing it got in the referendum that followed. With so many difficulties now facing the politicians, it seems premature to hail this as a crowning achievement. The subtleties of the text deliberately left crucial areas ambiguous or unresolved. It meant leaders of very different shades could sign on the dotted line. But it also postponed crucial problems to be dealt with at a later date.

I don't know whether the parties will be able to resolve the perennial problem of paramilitary disarmament. Perhaps the best we can hope is that the politicians will find another way around the logjam. However, it's hard to imagine that the situation will be allowed to slip all the way back to the days before the present process began.

Even politicians opposed to the process look very much at home when you watch them walking the corridors of the new assembly at Stormont. The current peace is undoubtedly flawed. But if the violence remains limited to small dissident factions they hopefully won't develop the kind of killing power demonstrated by the bigger paramilitary groups before they declared ceasefires.

During one marching crisis a couple of years ago a six year old boy followed me around as I interviewed people on a street corner in Protestant east Belfast. "I hate the Fenians," he said, "they won't let us do anything we want to do". Needless to say, he didn't have any Catholic friends. Hopefully as he grows up he'll make some.

In Catholic West Belfast a gaggle of children surrounded me as I filmed the scene of a bomb attack. They wanted to know what I thought of the target, a patrol of "peelers" as the police are known. "Are all peelers bad men?" a little girl asked. It was clear she'd been brought up to assume as much.

We need have no illusions.

For decades Northern Ireland will still be dealing with ingrained attitudes and the legacy of violence, ignorance and hatred. Many of the doubts people harbour about the future are legitimate and understandable. But I believe there are enough people of goodwill who realise that some way forward has to be found. It's up to the politicians to sort out the details.

I am now reporting on the American perspective on the war in Kosovo. Despite all the horrors its people have experienced, Northern Ireland has always drawn back when it appeared on the brink of the kind of ethnic barbarity which we have seen in the Balkans.

Amidst the minutiae of the peace process it's easy for the politicians to miss what's going on elsewhere in the world. As they stand their ground and refuse to budge an inch, maybe they should take a look at what's going on in the Balkans and then once again reconsider their options.

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In this section

Key events since the Good Friday Agreement

Splinter groups threaten peace

Punishment beatings: A grip of fear

LVF link to Red Hand terrorists

The long search for peace

Two centuries of tradition

Inside the Orange Order

Continuity IRA - the struggle goes on?

Northern Ireland facts and figures

A fond farewell to Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement in full