My family originally hails from Northern Ireland, but having never lived there myself I have always been interested in ‘The Troubles’ and what it was like to live through it. Last week whilst visiting family I finally did something I have wanted to do for some time; a political tour of the troubled parts of the city with a private guide taking us past the murals, the memorials, the Sinn Fein headquarters the particularly prominent areas for both Catholics and Protestants.
It made me realise that although most people are vaguely aware of ‘The Troubles’, many have no real concept of what is was really like, what it meant to the people of Belfast, or that there is still continuing unrest now, many years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which theoretically brought an end to the 30 years of conflict.
Our guide was a fantastic chap called Mark (http://www.niblacktaxitours.com/belfast-political-tours/) whose family had lived in Belfast for generations. We couldn’t have asked for a better insight from someone who has lived through it, is still living through it and simply wants peace in his country. In a very brief nutshell, the most troubled part of the city is very much divided in to the Falls Road area, which is home to the Catholics or Republicans, and the Shankill Road area, historically home to the Protestants or Loyalists. Cutting right through the middle of these two areas is the imposing ‘Peace Wall’, a concrete and steel wall, 10 metres high in parts, erected to ‘keep the peace’ between the Catholics and the Protestants.
I wasn’t aware that the Peace Wall still, in 2015, has huge steel gates that are locked at dusk and at weekends in an attempt to prevent violence and keep the warring sides apart. Mark told us that even now, children will gather at the gates in the evening, throwing stones and looking for a fight. In recent years there have been calls to remove the wall, but they haven’t been well received as there is still so much bitterness between the two sides and civil war could well break out again if the wall came down. Catholics are not welcome on the Shankill side, and vice versa for the Protestants on the Falls Road side. People must not find themselves on the wrong side of the wall late at night, and often even choose to take a convoluted route home from a night out in order to avoid certain areas. We asked Mark how we would be viewed, walking through the streets on either side as tourists. After a moment’s thought he said that with our English accents we would be more welcome on the Protestant side, yet everyone knows everyone and any stranger will be questioned as to their motives and reason for being there. In his words “If you don’t have the right answers it wouldn’t end well for you”.
The murals are sobering, especially when you hear the stories behind them and the fierce loyalty and hatred that sparked their creation. Their significance is still so relevant in Belfast, and it is hard to believe that within our own lifetime, a civil war was raging just across the water, with frequent petrol bombs, shootings and severe violence.
I’m not a politically minded person as a rule, but I was genuinely gripped with everything Mark had to say. Northern Ireland is such a beautiful country with such wonderful, friendly people, but with such a fascinating and terribly sad history which is still very much in the minds of those who both live in and visit Belfast. Children today have no experience of ‘The Troubles’ yet unfortunately in the Falls and Shankill areas it seems they are born with the hatred in their blood, told from a young age that the other side is their enemy. It is easy to look from outside and wonder why they can’t just let bygones be bygones and live in peace, but the violence and hatred is still so raw and the evidence all around that you are left wondering if Northern Ireland will ever be able to forget and ever find peace.