It feels wrong somehow that tourism can come out of violence, fear, pain, and death. And yet, here I am on a traditional Belfast black taxi tour joining dozens of other such vehicles, all filled with visitors like me taking photos of a place that only twenty-five years ago was home to some of the worst sectarian violence on the planet. But such macabre things hold a fascination for people, myself included. And to be honest, tourism is the fastest growing industry in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, so at least the people of the city might gain a little benefit from the influx.
During the period known as the Troubles, from roughly 1969 to the official end in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a portion of Belfast was unable to be served by normal transport services due to the high amount of violence. Black taxis like this one were brought over from London, and drivers filled the gaps. The black taxi tours stem from that.
I could spend thousands of words just writing the history of the Troubles from my fairly basic understanding and my experiences here, but I want to get to the more modern times, so here is a very quick history lesson. When Protestantism became the dominant religion in England, which controlled Catholic Ireland, Protestants were imported to help keep the Irish “loyal.” Land was confiscated from Catholics to give to them. And after Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II in 1690, a series of penal laws were passed basically outlawing Catholicism and putting Catholics firmly as second class citizens.
After a failed Irish rebellion in 1798, the Irish Parliament was dissolved in the Act of Union, making Ireland officially part of the United Kingdom, where it would remain until 1921. During this period, efforts were made to gain Catholic rights (which succeeded to an extent), Home Rule (sort of like Scotland; this failed) and independence, both by peaceful and not-so-peaceful means. The exception was in Ulster, nine counties in the north of Ireland. Here, Protestants made up a majority of the population and were determined not to allow any Irish independence movement to interfere with their being part of the United Kingdom.
When independence was achieved, part of the negotiation resulted in six of the nine Ulster counties remaining in the UK, and so Northern Ireland was born. (It is important to note two things here. First, the English were almost entirely the “bad guys” in the story of the Irish struggle for independence, having both passively and actively repressed Irish Catholics, leaving a population that declined by half between emigration and famine during the 1800s. Second, Irish independence was not a pure Catholic versus Protestant issue, as some of the staunchest supporters of the issue were Protestant.)
After independence, our story centers on Northern Ireland, where two competing factions were creating paramilitary groups. First, you have the loyalists or unionists, who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown and in the Union. Largely (but not entirely) Protestant, they formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and wore orange after William of Orange, whom we spoke of earlier. Those in favor of re-merging with Ireland were known as nationalists or republicans, and formed the IRA, Irish Republican Army. They were predominantly Catholic.
Armed conflict broke out in the late 1960s, with the two sides fighting each other, the British Army – which deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 – and civilians, largely in working class neighborhoods. A wall was built dividing mainly Catholic neighborhoods from majority Protestant ones. Called the Peace Wall, it still stands today, and my taxi driver, Cecil, takes me to see it. It divides Falls Road (Catholic) from the Shankill (Protestant), and both neighborhoods remain dominated by their respective religions today.
Cecil is Protestant, but married a Catholic. He says that during the Troubles, he wouldn’t have ever driven on the Catholic side of the wall. He points out gates, gates that still shut nightly, that separated the communities, and murals expressing varied propaganda depending on what side of the wall we are on.
Over the next twenty-five years, until a 1994 ceasefire, more than 3500 people would be killed in the Troubles, a majority of whom were civilians. Tit for tat reprisals were carried out through bombings and shootings, with the results being a Belfast that was a military camp with security barriers everywhere. Journalists who covered the Troubles were also subjected to violence, with the Europa Hotel (which held most of them, and is my hotel on this trip) bombed nearly forty times by the IRA for the purposes of gaining attention.
Three people caught up in the fighting are working today to help bridge gaps between communities affected. Jim is a former member of the UVF. Gearoiv was part of the IRA. Lee was deployed by the British Army. Together, the three of them speak of their experiences, of the violence committed both against and by all (the British military acted as nearly as bad of a player as the paramilitary groups), and of the current status of Northern Ireland.
In 1998, brokered by American President Bill Clinton, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, officially putting an end to the Troubles. A power-sharing agreement in the Northern Irish government was established (although both sides have left government over various issues, and currently there is no government as a result of the unionist party quitting over Brexit) and vague promises were made of a future referendum for a permanent solution as to whether to remain in the UK or rejoin Ireland. Former political prisoners (including both Jim and Gearoiv) were freed from jail, where many had been kept without trial, and few had been allowed to have full juries.
One such jail here in Belfast is Crumlin Road Gaol. Built in 1840 (and closed in 1996, just before the Agreement), it housed large numbers of both IRA and UVF prisoners. A tour of the prison, now a museum, talks about this time in addition to the larger history of the place. (Both Jim and Gearoiv tell me they spent time here, in addition to the more notorious prison of Long Kesh.) Partisan fighters were kept separate from each other, although the jail was attacked by factions on multiple occasions, and for a couple of years fighters were actually treated as political prisoners by the British, though that status was revoked quickly. It is a haunting place to visit, and one that gives another side to the Troubles.
All three speakers, as well as my taxi driver Cecil, are fairly optimistic about the future of Belfast and Northern Ireland as we stand twenty-five years out, a blink of an eye in terms of the aftermath of a war. Yes, the Peace Wall is still up. Yes, each side (with exceptions like my panel) tends to only tell its own standpoint on the issues. Yes, the working class neighborhoods most affected still have economic problems that make it tough to move on. But none see a return to widespread violence. And all are part of a growing majority that want to move on, to put all of this firmly in the past, regardless of their political desires to see a unified Ireland or a Northern Ireland of the United Kingdom. (None mention religion as a motivating issue in the least. This is, and always was – at least post-Irish independence – a political issue that tended to divide along religious lines, not a desire of one religion to annihilate the other worldwide.)
Toward the end of the taxi tour, outside of the IRA Garden of Remembrance (we visited a UVF one as well), Cecil asks me what side I come down on. After visiting Belfast, after talking to people who lived through and participated in the Troubles, I can safely say both sides are right. And both sides are wrong. I come down on the side of peace, of people like Jim, Gearoiv, and Lee, who confront their past demons and trauma to come together and move forward. I come down on the side of Cecil, who gives as even-handed a view of a complicated and nuanced period as one can, despite his more one-sided upbringing. I come down on the side of a Belfast bulging at the seams with youthful excitement and growth, yearning to finally put the Troubles behind it.
At the end of the day, all I can do is learn, listen, and to try to do the smallish bit of justice to them and to their history. It doesn’t feel like enough, but I know others are out there doing the same. Perhaps together we can all learn from a terrible period in the very recent (historically speaking) past, and help the world to grow from it. Thank you, Belfast, for allowing me to have this experience here with you.
Thank you so much to Crumlin Road Gaol for hosting my visit, and to all those mentioned above (and the random people I’ve spoken with here) who have done so much to move an amazing city forward.
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