The topic under discussion here is a sensitive one, but I hope not controversial. If any offence is caused, I can assure you that it’s completely unintentional, therefore please accept my apologies in advance if I have.
In 2004, six years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I paid my first visit to Belfast. To have gone there as an English tourist before ‘The Troubles’ were officially ended would have been unthinkable for most people, and even after those peace documents were signed, not everybody approved of the outcome, and sporadic violence still wasn’t uncommon.
In my introduction to Northern Ireland I gave a brief explanation as to how the North got separated from the South after the 1921 Irish War of Independence; but the Government of Ireland Act may have solved one problem but it created another – and Belfast, being the North’s capital, found itself in the thick of it.
Different people have different opinions as to when The Troubles actually started because catholic discontent and protestant suspicion had been simmering for quite some time. On the one hand, the minority catholic population felt that they were being treated as second class citizens on issues such as jobs and housing (and there was little they could do about it under the prevailing voting system): Protestants, on the other hand, felt that there was a deliberate attempt by Irish Catholics to change the demographics of the province, and the Northern Ireland government was either inept or complicit in handling it. I think most people accept though, that it was during the late 1960s when things took a distinct turn for the worse, particularly around the time of the Civil Rights marches.
I’ve read numerous books, watched countless news reports and even witnessed first-hand how the conflict affected the UK mainland, but as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, only the people who were directly involved there during this tragic period of Irish history can come anywhere near close to describing what it was like to live in the province during those times. For these reasons, I don’t intend to delve too deeply into the background of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, but I will need to touch on some of the history for anything to make sense.
For anyone who would like to know more, I can highly recommend this excellent 2019 TV documentary series entitled Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History.
Trouble first flared up in Derry/Londonderry, but it wasn’t long before it reached Belfast. Fearful of sectarian skirmishes turning into a full-scale civil war, the Northern Ireland government requested support from the British government who sent help in the form of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
Seen as peacekeepers, the army was initially welcomed by the Catholic community who felt under siege from the larger Protestant population, but the army were not there to take sides, but to help keep the peace, and not all the actions in places like the Falls Road were peaceful. Attitudes changed on both sides, especially after the Falls Road Curfew, and the army were increasingly seen by Catholics as tools of the British government, who themselves were seen as supporters of the Protestant communities who remained loyal to the United Kingdom.
In response, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed, calling themselves the Provisional IRA (PIRA or Provos). The Catholics of Northern Ireland were now at war with the United Kingdom.
People might think I’m mad (and sometimes I think I probably am), but I was keen to visit some of the places that regularly appeared on our TV screens for thirty years or more. I’ve always had an avid interest in history and social history, and it wasn’t just that I had a voyeuristic interest in seeing these places, I was also hoping to find answers to some of the questions about why there was so much hatred in this otherwise lovely corner of the United Kingdom – and I came to the conclusion that the best way to do this was by using a taxi.
Taking advantage of the new-found peace in the province, there were a few enterprising taxi firms that did tours for anyone who wanted to see some of the sectarian murals that had sprung up around the city, but I was hoping for a bit more than that, and the driver of the taxi that I had ordered was willing to go more or less wherever I wanted.
I guessed when I booked, that the driver would be a protestant, and sure enough he was – a Loyalist from the Shankhill Road area. Bearing that in mind, I was flabbergasted to see that our first stop was in Divis Street, right under the notorious Divis Tower in the staunchly Falls Road Catholic area. I certainly wasn’t expecting that from an ‘Orange’ taxi driver.
The Tower was part of the Divis Flats complex, most of which was demolished in the 1980s. The flats were hostile territory for Loyalists and law protectors, and the situation wasn’t helped when machine gun fire from a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) armoured car killed 9-year-old Patrick Rooney during riots in August 1969. He was the first child to be killed during The Troubles.
Situated just beyond the lower end of the Falls Road, the Divis Flats were constantly in the news, and although British troops weren’t welcome, they did manage to create an observation post at the top of the tower by using helicopters: It was still in operation at the time I was here, and if you look closely at the photograph below you should still be able to make it out.
Even though it wasn’t filmed here, an excellent 2014 film entitled ‘71 is worth watching if you want to get an idea of what was happening around the Divis Flats back in the early 1970s.
Divis Street was also my introduction to the sectarian wall murals: The picture below shows what the Falls Road area thought of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) who succeeded the RUC. The mainly protestant RUC were despised by the local community, and they were replaced in 2001 by the PSNI after a report by Chris Patten, a British Conservative politician of Irish Catholic descent.
The next picture shows three paintings: The Maghaberry Prison mural refers to the problems associated with the lack of segregation between Catholic and Protestant prisoners inside the Lurgan prison; the middle one translates as “Our day will come”, a phrase which has been used in a variety of circumstances: In this case I would hazard a guess that the addition of Arabic writing indicates solidarity with the struggles in the Middle East, and particularly Palestine.
This is obviously the case with the third mural, which shows how the Provisional IRA were happy to ally themselves with other organizations and causes around the world. The support was a two-way affair and it enabled the IRA to obtain weapons from sources connected to armed combat in places like the Middle East.
These days, the murals have spread along Divis Street and around the corner into Northumberland Street, and has become known as the Solidarity or International Wall.
If I was surprised that my Protestant taxi driver didn’t mind stopping at the Divis Flats, then I was even more surprised that he was prepared to stop near the Sinn Fein headquarters in the Falls Road. He didn’t get out mind you, but I don’t think he was unduly bothered about waiting for me to take a picture, which is just as well. I was beginning to get the impression that maybe any fears I might have had about doing this tour were unfounded.
Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA, its president being the controversial Gerry Adams. The offices were obviously well protected, but I was surprised to see at how modern the building was. On the side wall is a mural of Bobby sands, one of the hunger strikers in the Maze Prison who campaigned for the right to be treated as political prisoners. Whilst he was in prison he was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and died on 5th May 1981 aged 27 after starving himself for 66 days. Another nine prisoners followed him to an early grave during the protest, but most people only remember the first ‘martyr’ – Bobby Sands.
I was pleased, even if surprised, that we’ve travelled through some of the Catholic heartland of West Belfast, and we hadn’t finished yet. My taxi driver took us further up the Falls Road and then turned up Whiterock Road to another staunch Republican area – the Ballymurphy Estate.
Apart from being the home of Gerry Adams, Ballymurphy is best known for what has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre, when between 9th-11th August1971, 1 Para were accused of killing eleven civilians during Operation Demetrius. The operation involved rounding up and interning members of the IRA: The regiment insisted that they were shot at first before returning fire.
Fortunately, nothing like that was going on here today, and I felt fairly comfortable in taking more pictures of some of the wall murals.
I guessed by now, the taxi driver wanted to get nearer to more familiar territory, and from Ballymurphy it was an easy drive along the Springfield Road towards the sectarian interface that divides the Falls and Shankhill Roads.
Turning into Lanark Way, we had to pass through gates which keep the two areas apart. They were open when we went through, but there are set closing times even to this day. On the Protestant side we went to see the ‘Peace Wall’ in Cupar Way – another feature that still stands, but until that wall comes down, I don’t think that anyone can really say that peace has returned to Northern Ireland.
At the end of Cupar Way, a short drive up Conway Street brought us into the heart of the Shankhill Road – it doesn’t get any more ‘Orange’ than this. My taxi driver may have felt easier on this side of the divide, but strangely enough, I didn’t. Perhaps I’ve read too many books about people like Johnny Adair and the Shankhill Butchers (I don’t recommend that you read any of them either).
We spent quite some time exploring the locality, and even though I got used to seeing political murals on the other side of the Peace Wall, I wasn’t expecting to see quite so many murals of Loyalist paramilitary groups on this side.
The Shankhill was home to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and although they had a common enemy, they also managed to fall out between themselves. The main culprit for the in-fighting was Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, leader of the UDA’s ‘C’ company.
Johnny Adair and the UDA regularly met on Saturday mornings at their headquarters above Frizzell’s Fish Shop on the Shankhill Road. On Saturday 23rd October 1993, two IRA members drove from the Ardoyne area of North Belfast to plant a bomb in the fish shop underneath. The plan was to prime the bomb, allowing enough time for the shop to be evacuated, but not the upstairs meeting room. The plan didn’t work: the bomb exploded prematurely, killing the bomber, one member of the UDA, and eight protestant civilians including two children. At least fifty more were injured, and what’s more, there was no meeting going on upstairs at the time either. Johnny Adair vowed revenge – and many more names were shortly to be added to the long list of innocent victims in this bitter sectarian war.
Nobody could mistake what side of the divide we were on here. Union Jacks were flying, kerbstones were painted red, white and blue, and there was even a reminder as to who won the Battle of the Boyne.
I’d seen enough of sectarian Belfast for one day, and so after taking a drive over to East Belfast to see where Van Morrison and Georgie Best grew up, the taxi driver dropped me off in the centre of the city outside the City Hall.
Maybe because it was a miserable day weatherwise, but apart from the impressive City Hall, there wasn’t much to inspire me in the city centre, and even a boat trip up the River Lagan left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed, so there was only one thing to do in this situation – go for a pint.
Belfast might not have been teeming with traditional tourist sites, but there’s no shortage of good pubs, and there was one I was determined not to miss – the Crown Liquor Saloon in Great Victoria Street.
The Crown is an absolute gem, so much so, that it’s owned by the National Trust. To enter the bar of this one-time gin palace, you have to walk across a mosaic crown set in the floor, which some elements of the Belfast population apparently take great delight in wiping their feet on (no prizes for guessing who they might be).
Once inside, I was taken aback at the wonderful Victorian interior: Glazed tiles, mirrors and etched windows were everywhere, and to add to the ambience, there are ten separate cosy snugs – wonderful! If ever I get the chance to return, I’ll not only be staying longer, I’ll also be writing a separate post about this remarkable drinking house.
Unfortunately for the Crown, its location is just across the street from the Europa Hotel, which has the unenviable reputation of being the “most bombed hotel in the world”. Between 1970 and 1994 it suffered 33 explosions, and the damage often extended across the road to the pub. If ever proof was needed that it takes a lot to put an Irishman off his pint of Guinness, surely this must be it.
Fortunately, I wasn’t staying at the Europa, but in a budget hotel just south of the city centre not far from the university. It wasn’t too far away, but instead of walking down the main road, I turned off for Sandy Row, an area I knew to be Loyalist, a word I was beginning to differentiate from that of Protestant.
Where I was staying was in a Protestant area, but Sandy Row was unequivocally Loyalist. I didn’t think I would feel threatened walking down here, but I would no doubt have felt differently if I was Catholic. It might not have had the same exposure during the Troubles as the Shankhill, but there were sinister elements operating here just the same.
By now, I didn’t need too much encouragement to head for the comfort of my hotel because my brain was struggling to come to terms with what I’d experienced today.
I had seen parts of Belfast that I’d heard and read so much about, and that alone was worth the taxi fare, but at the same time, I hadn’t expected for a Loyalist taxi driver to introduce me to parts of Catholic West Belfast. That was a bonus for me in two ways: Not only did I see both sides of the divide, it was also obvious that the protestant driver was unfazed about driving around ‘enemy’ territory – perhaps peace was breaking out after all.
On the other side of the coin though, I had different feelings to what I had been expecting. The Loyalist areas of the Shankhill and Sandy Row felt more intimidating than the Catholic Falls Road or Ballymurphy. To people like myself living on the UK mainland, the IRA were responsible for inflicting atrocities on our streets that were incomprehensible to most people, which is why I suppose I was expecting to see a different perspective than I got.
Before I came to Belfast, I checked out the taxi companies willing to do a tour like I had today, but none of them were Catholic. Even seeking out the Tourist Information Centre on Laganside earlier didn’t throw up any contenders, but to get a balanced view of things I was determined to find one. The hotel couldn’t come up with any suggestions, and by now I was beginning to get the feeling that nobody wanted me to. Over a bottle of wine in my room, I thumbed through all sorts of contact numbers and eventually found one. I don’t think they did tours as such, but they were willing to send someone who would do it – and tomorrow I was to find out who it was – and a whole lot more besides.