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Rioting sets back tentative bridge-building in Ulster

Rosie Thorpe recently took eight Protestant and eight Catholic teenagers from turbulent north Belfast on vacation to the Netherlands, where they tentatively started friendships.

Last week, some of the youngsters from Thorpe's Protestant housing estate of Rathcoole had planned to go to the movies with their new friends from the nearby Bawnmore Catholic area.

But they balked after a week of rioting increased sectarian tensions across Northern Ireland. The Rathcoole youngsters "thought they were being set up," said Thorpe.

"Some people here called them "Taig lovers,' " she said, ruefully repeating the derogatory term for Catholics. "The violence has set us back 10 steps."

Throughout Belfast, those who have labored to construct bridges across the city's sectarian divide are experiencing similar disappointments in the wake of a week of rioting that began July 7.

The refusal by police to let Protestants march through a Catholic area southwest of Belfast led to four days of Protestant disturbances. When police relented, Catholics vented their anger in the streets.

In the first serious clashes since, about 200 rioters fought with police early Saturday in Omagh, west of Belfast. Three people were injured. In London, eight people _ seven from Ireland or Northern Ireland and one from England _ were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions.

For at least a decade, various organizations have been trying to bring Catholics and Protestants together in the British-ruled province wracked by sectarian violence for a quarter-century.

In a 12-month period spanning 1994 and 1995, the British government spent $13.5-million for 900 community relations projects and the European Union provided $16-million to support 50 projects.

The groups' uphill struggle was given a boost after the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire in September 1994, but progress was made more difficult after the IRA ended the truce in February.

The July riots have shaken their efforts further, although they hope to regain ground when the tensions subside.

The Cornerstone Community, which runs mixed youth clubs and provides lunches for the elderly in the shadow of a wall separating Catholic from Protestant, is in "breath-holding mode," said director Tom Hannon.

Plans for August activities for children aged 6-13 may have to be canceled, he said: "We don't know if parents will be sufficiently confident to send their children."

While the IRA cease-fire held, debates at the Ulster People's College in west Belfast were frank, said education director Johnston Price, whose staff provides training in community development and political skills. "I expect people now will begin to censor themselves again," he said.

In the west Belfast suburb of Ballynafeigh, where Catholics and Protestants have lived peacefully together for years, tension is high after a few people were intimidated out of their homes during the riots, said community worker Katie Hanlon.

"People here have taken risks and have chosen to live together," Hanlon said at the community center where she and colleagues provide information and office facilities for local residents.

"Now there is a feeling of despair, of not wanting to go back to the way things were" before the IRA broke its truce with a Feb. 9 London bomb that killed two men.

In Rathcoole, Gina Armstrong, 15, recently attended a mixed barbecue organized by community workers. When the talk turned to politics, she said, "we all ended up fighting each other _ they were fistfights."

She would still like more contacts _ "they help you to understand the other side." So would Johnny Young, also 15, who was on Thorpe's trip and reveled in the lack of tension.

"We were all just the same there," he said. "We got on quite well, and we enjoyed ourselves. There was no fighting. Maybe it was because we were away from home."

_ Information from Reuters was used in this report.