BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — The upbeat Belfast of today looks and feels nothing like the high-security city that once captured world headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The Northern Ireland capital does remain scarred by scores of high walls of brick, corrugated iron and barbed wire that separate the most militant Irish Catholic and British Protestant districts — barriers called "peace lines" because they deter street fighting.
Artful house-side murals commemorate past grievances and paramilitary loyalties. Memorials dot the landscape honoring many of the 3,700 people slain during decades of conflict that have abated, but not quite ended, since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
But visitors to Belfast can be pleasantly surprised to find gleaming glass-fronted shopping malls, trendy cafes, clusters of high-tech industries — and lots of fellow tourists.
Long gone are the British Army helicopters that once maintained a round-the-clock surveillance watch over the city. So, too, are the soldiers, who once patrolled the city in force in support of Northern Ireland's police force. Some security barracks still look ready to action because of the unrelenting threat posed by Irish Republican Army splinter groups. But most paramilitary groups have maintained cease-fires since the 1990s, allowing normal life to gain a foothold.
The peace is precarious and depends, in part, on sustaining a joint Catholic-Protestant government. That dream of cross-community cooperation has achieved many goals, and overcome many crises, since taking root nearly two decades ago — but today faces an uncertain fight for revival.
The Catholic-Protestant partnership has been on ice since January amid increasing political polarization, and negotiations this month have failed to reach a new deal by Monday's official deadline. Britain's senior official in Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, says the British government soon may have no choice but to resume direct control of the government from London, the system that the Good Friday deal hoped to leave behind.
But on a bright sunny Friday, these worries seemed far away, as locals got on with their daily lives: shopping, getting haircuts, busking in the city center or having a drink in a bustling pub.