By James Diffley
Belfast is a city rejuvenated. Investment and development have replaced chaos and danger as bywords in recent times. Yet social barriers still persist in Northern Ireland’s capital, in a quite literal and ideological sense. When visiting, I booked a black cab tour, which provided an unbiased glimpse into the sectarian past between Catholic and Protestant communities. Our guide, a burly veteran of “The Troubles,” brought us to feuding Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. What I discovered would shock and astound me, as I was privy to rare insight into a city overcoming its past.
Our tour guide whisked us through Belfast’s centre. Businesses and migrants now flock to the increasingly peaceful city, but this is only a recent development. Home to both Catholic and Protestant populations who identify as Irish and British respectively, Belfast saw large scale sectarian tension and paramilitary activity in the past. This intensified in the 1970’s during a period known as "The Troubles", which claimed 1600 lives. During this time, Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups spearheaded the aggression, frequently carrying out bombings and assassinations. They were known as the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and UDA (Ulster defence association). "The Good Friday Agreement," a peace treaty, was eventually signed in 1998, curbing the bloodshed. Despite occasional flare ups, Belfast is amongst the safest places to live in the United Kingdom.
We headed to the west of the city, towards the Shakhill road, home to a predominantly Protestant population. To my immense surprise, we encountered a colossal wall. The concrete behemoth stands well over five metres tall, dividing the Shankill road into two neighbourhoods.
These “peace walls”, were initially erected as a temporary measure after in 1969, at the start of the troubles, and as the conflict continued more were constructed. As of 2018 there are 34km of wall stretching around Belfast.
“The gates are open during the day but at night they are closed. They won’t even open for the emergency services,” our guide informs us with a wry chuckle.
“Do you think they will ever be taken down?”
He answers it with another laugh.
“They’ve been up longer than the Berlin wall and nobody’s asked yet.”
As I gazed upwards I wondered how a city could properly heal when its communities were so sharply delineated from one another.
Our second stop was a Protestant housing estate. Houses at the end of their rows had murals painted on their sides. One depicts William of Orange, a Protestant monarch who ousted the Catholic incumbent James II in 1690. He is considered a hero by some in the Protestant community. Our driver insisted we have our photo taken; my partner and I stood awkwardly in front of the mural.
Afterwards, I asked how these murals came to be commissioned.
Our guide replied, “A group of people arrive at your house and tell you they’re painting it. If you don’t like it then you leave.”
I was beginning to see how communities were drawn into an ideology of hate simply by proxy of their location. As we stood, listening, groups of children played in the street, oblivious to such considerations. To them, political symbolism had become part of the furniture.
A visit to a Catholic neighbourhood revealed similar murals. These, however, depicted victims of the sectarian violence too bloody to photograph. Instead, we stopoedby a memorial to victims of this bloodshed; another black cab tour was also there. Our guide hailed his counterpart and the two men jested with one another companionably. They smilingly divulged that they were from “different sides of the wall”, and that a meeting between them years earlier would have taken place under “different circumstances”. I struggled to comprehend the blasé attitude both men had adopted to a once deadly rivalry.
Throughout the tour our guide had enigmatically refused to reveal his own background. He had been remarkably eloquent, truthful and non-partisan, insisting that we take pictures in front of both Catholic and Protestant memorials, without discrimination. He playfully asked us to guess which background he came from. My partner and I hesitated, unwilling to broach the subject despite his obvious ease in speaking about it. It was only when we stood outside a Catholic community centre and people began to greet him that his heritage became apparent.
As the tour ends I am bursting with questions but curiously reluctant to voice them. Eventually, I asked our guide about his involvement in "The Troubles." His response was to reveal a puckered white scar on his lower back. He told us this was the legacy of a violent protest against the police in the 1980’s. He had witnessed the brutality of the conflict first hand.
But what he says next is more uplifting:
“Doing these tours and talking about the conflict has helped me to heal."
He stated that despite his past allegiances, he wanted to de-escalate the tensions between communities. This spoke volumes about Belfast’s population. They tired of conflict and senseless violence a long time ago. His response also answers a second question I never asked: what of Belfast’s future?
“Peace," in Belfast, is still a delicate and evolving term. Yet if someone embroiled in the conflict could turn his back on decades of resentment, surely the city is capable of doing so too. As once-separated communities continue to live peacefully side by side, and migrants steadily trickle in, a generation will soon exist that has never been exposed to such prejudices. We said goodbye and the cab drove off. It has been quite the journey.
IF YOU GO:
Headed to Belfast? Book a tour with belfastblackcabtours.co.uk. The cost is £35 for a one-and-a-half-hour tour.
James Diffley is a former teacher, turned travel writer. He grew up in South London but now calls Canada home.