ARMY helicopters still fly low over the South Armagh countryside re-supplying the lonely hilltop observation posts that look out across the green hills of what everyone calls Bandit Country. Trees alongside the rolling country road through the woods and scrubland bear Irish tricolours, walls are painted in Gaelic slogans and signs tell you that this is 'helibuster' country - British army helicopters will be shot down. Large wooden cut-out initials spelling 'IRA' mark the entrance to Crossmaglen, the small town which over the past 25 years has come to represent the rural heart of the Republican battle for a united Ireland. This is the town where a British officer in disguise was once dragged out of a pub, tortured and left for dead on nearby land while the community whispered not a word. This is the town where nearly all the adult males would boast of having been hauled into the heavily fortified Royal Ulster Constabulary and army base off the main square with tales of beatings and humiliation. 'They are just opening one of the side roads into the Republic today,' said one 70-year-old of the removal of the barriers and ditches which have blocked off the rat runs for terrorists into the Irish Republic for the last two decades as he walked into Short's bar. 'Better fill the holes with soldiers and concrete it over,' grunted George down the bar. This is the 'Independent Republic of South Armagh' where close observers of the IRA feel the fragile Ulster peace may break down first unless there is real and fast progress at talks between the Government and Sinn Fein which began at Stormont Castle yesterday. Indeed it was the South Armagh brigade of the IRA which recently carried out the only terrorist murder since the ceasefire three months ago, shooting dead a postman Frank Kerr in nearby Newry in a cash snatch. Word is that the local terrorists did not accept that the ceasefire also meant they had to halt fund-raising armed robberies. Cross, as the locals call it, sums up the disparate views of the historic ceasefire called by the IRA three months ago. This is a countryside where nobody ever had much time for the law anyway. Today they say events, from their point of view, have got worse since the ceasefire. 'Don't get me wrong, we want peace,' said a young graphic designer. 'It is good there is a sense of relief about being able to travel around without being shot by either side, the Provos or the Army.' But they accuse the police, who most claim would not have dared set foot outside the police station without a heavily armed patrol until recently for fear of snipers, of filling the vacuum left by the effective retreat of the IRA. They accuse the Royal Marines holed up in the base of hitting and harassing local people. A proposal for the Royal Marines band to play in the town square was laughed out of court by the locals - and by the unit's officers themselves. Bar owner Paddy Short, who still carries an army bullet in his chest from an earlier fracas says, perhaps amazingly, 'We have never had it so bad.' He charges that the security forces are wreaking their revenge on the population now after 20 years of being on the receiving end themselves. It is a tough charge but this is a town where the war meant ambushes on the military, bombs under army vehicles, sniper attacks across the fields and where the forces were seen as the enemy by most. It did not mean sectarianism or the bombing of one group by another. Crossmaglen illustrates how Ulster's Troubles have never been just an urban phenomenon. Here they claim that unlike Belfast or Londonderry nobody had anything to do with the IRA until the army came in, ripping up the town's Gaelic football pitch and treating everyone like peasants in an occupied land. Travel north to Belfast and the arguments are different. Here the Peace Line - a great concrete and steel wall - still cuts an ugly swathe between the Republican Falls Road and the staunchly Loyalist Shankhill just a few hundred yards away. In these areas sectarianism still rules despite any ceasefire. You know where you are by the graffiti. 'Demilitarise Now' reads the Sinn Fein slogan calling for troops to get off the streets. 'Disband the RUC' is a call for an end to the largely Protestant police force distinctly distrusted if not quite always hated in Republican areas. Streets through which bombers could once speed away in their hijacked cars are still blocked off, security cameras peer down from the battered walls of the army posts. The black cabs which have often been accused of being in league with the paramilitaries still ply their passengers like small buses up and down the Falls Road. Half a mile away tattered Union flags tell the stranger you are now in loyalist territory. The old slogan 'No Surrender' still peers out in fading white paint on walls. Yet the centre of Belfast down the hill is different again today. This week was a record breaker as far as shop keepers were concerned. You could hardly get a place on a train up from Dublin packed with those rushing for the cheaper goods of the North. Bed-and-breakfasts are full with shoppers from the south. 'I was definitely hesitant about coming before the peace initiative. But it's much easier now,' said Dublin student nurse Catherine Clune. The security cordon around the city centre has come down, streets once blackened with abandoned bombed out shells of buildings now beckon with bistros, restaurants and bars any European city would be proud of. The army patrols have been cut down and although nobody admits it there is a secret timetable for the army to pull out of Belfast if the talks go well. But the Government is worried that should they go wrong the demands of 'demilitarise now' could just mean the creation of IRA no-go zones for the security forces in Republican areas. Ironically there is one group that has always fared well out of the Troubles - the 7,000-strong Hong Kong Chinese community whose 400 restaurants and takeaways across the province took nearly all the catering business while the big multi-nationals like McDonald's stayed away and locals feared there was no point in opening a restaurant only to have it blown up. Often waved through security points the Chinese community thrived on their individuality when not even Indians were daring to set up restaurants in the Province. 'The Chinese community has flourished because everyone knew it was not involved in terrorism, it has been absolutely non-political here,' said Michael Shek, vice-chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Welfare Association, which employs 14 staff on a variety of projects. Hong Kong has also not been remiss at investing in Northern Ireland now there is light at the end of the tunnel. A Hong Kong company opened a compact disc plant in Limavady last year and two are even coming to a big investment conference hosted by John Major next week. INVESTMENT is seen as one of the great healers. This week the European Union pledged GBP231 million (HK$2.788 billion) to the province while Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew revealed that the peace dividend would mean GBP180 million could be switched from spending on security to other projects over the next three years. In Londonderry it is possible - just - to see the future. The last bomb there blew apart the courthouse two years ago, the last policeman to die was shot dead in a shopping mall almost exactly a year ago. Here where the Troubles began and reached their apocalyptic height in Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 died to the bullets of the Paratroop Regiment and where whole areas of the city were no-go to the police and army for a while, wholesale regeneration has taken place. It is not courtesy of the IRA but of Social Democratic and Labour Party MP John Hume who with so many others has brought investment into a potentially pretty and historic walled city. More than GBP500 million investment means even the Bogside and Creggan estates which for years summed up the Troubles for the vehemence of their violence now have hardly a run-down property between them. A new dual carriageway tears through the Bogside near the red painted gable end of a house, now with a preservation order on it which marks the spot where much of the Bloody Sunday shooting took place. 'Before you lifted a stone and you threw it. Now you lift a stone and you build with it,' said local commentator George Jackson. In the heart of the city stands the Craft Village, a network of narrow lanes and small shops with an award winning museum. It is an area recreated in the style of 300 years ago - all on one huge bomb site, and all the idea and hard work of Paddy 'Bogside' Doherty, once a defender of the no-go areas who turned his talents to rebuilding his city. Industry has poured in, much of it from the US and, although unemployment still stands at an unacceptable 28 per cent, prospects are improving rapidly. The first cruise ship will dock in the port on the River Foyle next July. Derry is where hard-liner Martin McGuinness, the man leading the Sinn Fein side at the Stormont talks, comes from. In the city they are optimistic that the peace will hold. They say McGuinness and Gerry Adams would not have staked their own futures within Sinn Fein so highly unless they thought talking peace was worthwhile. But that is not a universal message in this province of disparate views. Many observers feel the agendas of the three sides - Sinn Fein, the Unionists and the British Government - are still miles apart and unless there is rapid progress the hard men of South Armagh will lose patience. There are also those who suggest the IRA might plant another huge bomb in London to nudge things along if the talks fail. The Provos wrote to multinationals after the Bishopsgate bombing in 1992 telling of their powers. The prospect of capital fleeing London for Frankfurt or other European financial centres terrified the Government and many believe those pressures helped along the Downing Street declaration and the first peace breakthrough. But it was notable that Jim Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader did not turn up at Queen's University Belfast this week to receive a peace prize alongside other politicians. He doesn't believe peace has arrived yet. There will be many stumbling blocks - over the release of terrorist prisoners, over cross border links, over the IRA's retention of their weapons and explosives. Some prominent Republicans like editor Gearoid O Caireallain believe there can be a solution, even a continuance of British traditions as long as equal official prominence is given to Irish nationalism, that Northern Ireland should celebrate Irish traditions as much as those of the UK. Demographically the higher birth rate Catholic community, which one could once put down as Republican, will not be in a majority until the mid 21st century. But even now and presumably then many Catholics would prefer Northern Ireland to remain part of United Kingdom. The gap seems unbridgeable even though there is a genuine desire for peace. But in Derry Protestants are starting the reconciliation - moving back into the principally Republican side of the city from which they fled two decades ago. Nonetheless the scars across this province will take generations to heal. Take Helen McEndrie. Her mother was dragged out of the staunchly Republican Divis flats in Belfast by the IRA in 1972 after helping an injured soldier. She never came back. 'Now we are talking peace I want somebody to tell me what happened. I want to give her a proper burial if she is dead so I can live in real peace,' she said. If there is a peace dividend for Ulster it must start to heal the personal scars of women like Helen and the relatives of the other 3,000 who have died.