Singing on the train tells us Belfast is happy again

 

In the season of coffee-table books there should be one about the Belfast-Dublin train. It's a story full of history and drama, hope and tragedy, as well as many fine photographs, no doubt.

The past four years of my professional life have been largely devoted to Northern Ireland, and I became a regular passenger on this route. There are few sights to compare with the coast from Dublin to Drogheda and, when the line crosses the Border to Newry, I invariably recall that it was here Charles Dickens was said to have been involved in a train accident.

The halt at Portadown awakens a curious combination of mild apprehension and empathy for the citizens of that divided community. I mentally count up the number of Drumcrees I have covered and how each year was different from the others, like some bizarre brand of sectarian wine. Then it's on to Belfast which, for all its tragic history and pockets of unseen danger, never fails to give me a lift.

Maybe it's the chirpy good humour of the people, or just the awareness that for both traditions on this island the "Athens of the North" is a spiritual home, joint fountainhead of unionism and republicanism.

There's a different spirit on the train to Belfast these days. Happier, more carefree, as if people are enjoying the journey and not just fretting till it's over.

Regrettably, paramilitary attacks on this soft target still take place, and I cannot entirely suppress the nagging worry, when I get on with the other passengers, that we may be a "ship of fools" sailing into some unseen disaster.

In my years travelling up and down I do not recall much singing on the Belfast train. However, the group of women shoppers the other evening more than made up for that.

Since they were returning from Dublin, it was a fairly safe bet they were from a nationalist area. Sure enough, I found out they were from Andersonstown in west Belfast.

This district has known more than its share of tragedy and strife: you can be sure these women knew victims of the Troubles, perhaps even in their own families.

Women from "Andytown" singing on the train: some of the younger passengers took exception, because there was no let-up throughout the journey. I loved it. I remember travelling at this time three years ago, in the aftermath of Billy Wright's murder. The tension was so bad then you could slice it. Sing up, ladies!

Reporting the North was a 24hour business: you could not slacken your attention for a minute. But you could end up missing the wood for the trees.

Having been away from the place now for several months, I noticed many quiet but significant changes. Central Station, where the Dublin train lands, is undergoing badly-needed refurbishment. The historic Linenhall Library, which contained the research materials I needed for a forthcoming book, has carried out a major expansion programme, a happy combination of old and new.

A new hotel-apartment complex has opened opposite the BBC in Ormeau Avenue, its shining glass frontage an impressive vote of confidence in the future. In Bedford Street a man dressed as a giant pint of lager gave me a leaflet promoting a local pub: ain't normality wonderful?

Then there was the Odyssey Centre. I hope it does not affect trade at its handsome neighbour, the Waterfront Hall, because given half a chance it looks set to become the major concert venue on the entire island.

Custom-built for the purpose, it drew admiring words from Belfast singer Brian Kennedy, who remarked on the sense of intimacy he felt despite the size of the place.

Kennedy was doing his second "turn" for President Clinton, having performed the previous night at Dundalk. Although the President made some valuable points, he sounded tired. He made a greater emotional impact in Dundalk, and his speech in Dublin was wittier.

The by-play afterwards in the Odyssey was more interesting. I saw a Trimbleite unionist approach Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein and warmly shake his hand. Unlikely a few months ago, unthinkable last year, unimaginable the year before.

There have been so many crises in the Northern peace process that people I met hardly talked about them. We got through the last one, so maybe this one will be all right on the night: that seemed to be the attitude.

How many dismantled watchtowers in south Armagh would it take to get the concrete poured over a couple of IRA arms bunkers? These were the practical questions on people's minds.

My new duties as a journalist include reporting from places such as the Middle East. The stark and terrible sights you see on the West Bank or in Gaza make Belfast seem a quiet enough place. But there was a time when Belfast, and Northern Ireland generally, were a spreading bloodstain on the headlines of the world.

Bill Clinton was the first to point out that the Good Friday agreement was a model for other troubled regions. More than the future of our own small island is at stake in the current negotiations.

The new institutions are storm-tossed and fragile and need care and attention to survive. Like singing on the Belfast train, we can never take peace for granted.