Divided in Peace: Northern Ireland Is on the Verge of a Historic Power-Sharing Deal. but Any Pact between Hardline Republicans and Unionists Will Formalise Ethnic Cleansing. John Kampfner Reports

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Few parliaments across the world can boast gents lavatories as impressive as the ones at Stormont where Northern Ireland's representatives can relieve themselves in the splendour of black and grey marble. The only problem is that there aren't any representatives. Or at least there are, but they have nobody to represent.

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The Northern Ireland Assembly here has been suspended for the past four years, although everyone goes through the motions, with swanky offices, support staff and decent salaries. A few months ago, the British and Irish governments declared that they had had enough. They summoned the main parties to St Andrews in Scotland, where on 13 October they foisted on them a fresh agreement. This gave both sides until the end of November to accept new terms for restoring a devolved government and parliament by next March--or face direct rule for a long time to come (and no more perks and plush toilets). The haggling is characteristically bitter. But if the two arch enemies, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein do finally form a joint administration, it would mark the end point for the 40-year "troubles".

"This is the biggie," says Gerry Kelly, former IRA terrorist and possibly the next justice minister. Kelly has been doing the "peace process" for a decade and, like voters of all persuasions, he has learnt to be cautious. In any case, the idea of a government led by the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness is hardly one to gladden the heart. That is, curiously, also a source of optimism. It is one thing for moderate unionists and nationalists to sit together (they did it during the 1990s during the Assembly's various guises); it is quite another for the hard core to engage. For Paisley, the idea of ever dealing with Dublin was bad enough. Now he is being asked to talk to his nemesis, Gerry Adams. For republicans, recognising the police as the executors of law and order marks a wrench with history. "We have to be careful that we're not going too far ahead of our people," says Kelly. "But we do have to prepare them for changes ahead."

We were chatting in the republican cultural centre of the Falls Road, once a Presbyterian church. Northern Ireland is travelling two paths at the same time. One part of life here has moved on. Belfast's skyline is dominated by cranes. From the Waterfront Hall by the river to the new Odyssey sports centre, to the Michelin-starred restaurants and designer shops, the city is rebranding itself as a popular destination for low-cost airlines from Britain and Europe, for shoppers from the Irish Republic, and for business conferences.

And yet one does not have to venture more than a few hundred metres from the centre to be dragged back into the past. Kelly says he still makes a detour of half an hour to drive from the Falls to his home in the Ardoyne district, the centre of the violence of the 1970s and 80s. He still assumes that if he was spotted at a traffic light in the neighbouring Protestant Shankill Road, he would be dragged from his car, not to be seen again. The same would apply to hundreds of people on both sides. Former convicted terrorists and murderers, released as part of amnesties or political deals, walk the streets. This is a small town.

Two societies

The politicians' idea of peace is built on a false premise. Northern Ireland is officially becoming two societies. Communities, who even during the worst of the troubles were largely integrated, have now separated. There are Catholic schools, Protestant leisure centres, Catholic libraries and Protestant post offices. While there are some courageous people trying to develop integrated schools and integrated social housing, they are few and far between. Some 80 per cent of people now live in what are called single identity communities. Middle-class ethnic cleansing tends to be more discreet--the "ahem" here, the cold shoulder there. …