Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death.
23rd February 2022
I awoke this morning to the news that Russia had declared war with Ukraine. For the first time since WW2 one European Nation had invaded another European Sovereign Nation. 2022 the unfathomable, Europe is at war again. Sadly, it is even not remotely surprising news, it has been coming, it is still deeply shocking. The 21st Century, the age of technology, advancement yet we are still surrounded by unrest, conflict, greed and war?
We had returned the previous night 22 2 22 from a short ‘city’ break to Northern Irelands capital, Belfast. A rescheduled trip originally booked for December 2021. A highly anticipated break during (UK) ‘half-term’, a determined effort on our part to try to get back to (our) normal. Travel, exploration being our foremost, joint interest.
Ireland is a beautiful country with a long and proud tradition.
People have been living on the Emerald Isle since before recorded history and in many ways, Ireland’s story has seemingly been one of constant struggle. Whether fighting against the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, or the English, the more peaceful moments of the modern era have been a goal Ireland has long struggled to reach.
At just 80 miles, as the crow fly’s, Belfast is a short 30 minute flight from my city, Liverpool. Being so close Liverpool has strong historical connections with Ireland, you do not have to go far in my city to hear a friendly Irish accent. This was not my first visit to Belfast, I had enjoyed a previous, short, work related trip some 4 years ago, since then it has always been the plan to visit again as a couple.
In recent years Northern Ireland, Belfast City has played host to several prominent films and popular TV series amongst the foremost are, In The Line of Duty and the International block buster phenonium, that is Game of Thrones. Northern Ireland has embraced the film and TV era and has established itself as a regular go to filming destination.
Pre-trip research included, dutifully watching the latest, Oscar nominated, film set in the capital city, Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’, we watched only days before, hoping we might get to see some of the areas featured in his film on our trip.
This latest film, documenting the Troubles, is much more than that. It is beautifully filmed, a sensitive, at times humorous reflection on early life as seen thru the eyes of a young child. An autobiographical account of Brannagh growing up, living in Belfast at the very start of ‘the Troubles’. I enjoyed this film. I found myself resonating with many aspects, in particular the 60’s timeframe, my own childhood memories; the iconic Christmas toys, a James Bond Aston Martin Car, A Thunderbirds 2 toy and a Thunderbirds Uniform, all of which I also received for birthdays and Christmas as a kid. Branagh was born in 1959 same as myself.
I have taught (known) many students originating from Northern Ireland and I have a few Irish work colleagues and Irish friends who offered, pre-trip recommendations ‘things to do and see in Belfast’. The most common suggestion, by a country mile, a Black Cab Tour of the ‘the Troubles‘
The Troubles today, the exploration of, the tourist observation of, the curiosity of? They are also a lucrative, competitive industry. There are many such tours to choose from. We opted for Cab Tours Belfast on the basis of, that the company is jointly owned by both a Protestant and a Catholic – four drivers who grew up in Belfast during the troubles and come from different backgrounds of the political divide.
Our driver arrived 10 minutes early, a lean, 60ish obviously ‘Irish’ chap who could charm the pants off a Russian KGB prison guard with his natural, warmth and instant, friendly demeanour.
We exchanged brief courtises and introductions, ‘how are you finding Belfast’? ‘Have you been to Belfast before’? ‘How much do you already know about the troubles (only a little bit, or a lot)?’ ‘A little? Ok, then I can completely make it all up as we go along..?’
‘Stevie’ told us more about the format of the tour then finally, ‘at the end of the tour you must decide if I am a protestant or a catholic …. and rest assure there will be trouble if you get it wrong’!
I worked out, Stevie was, near enough, our age (early 60’s), I rhetorically asked ‘but the troubles are over now’? To which He replied, “No, not over, they will never be over, we have just stopped killing each other”? ‘The killing is over’. He explained “We will never integrate (fully) with each other, we are (too) different”.
He responded with another rhetorical question “How do you tell a protestant from a catholic”? You can’t, Gail replied “exactly, said Stevie you cannot, because we are all exactly the same? However, Belfast, the Troubles has nothing to do with religion? It has everything to do with identity, it’s all about identity? On one side there are Irish who want to be (fully) Irish and on the other side there are Northern Irish (British) who want to be (fully) British ….if anything Northern Irish British are more British than the British!” Based upon the overwhelming amount of nationalist symbols, flags & murals throughout the city, it is hard to disagree?
Thirty years of vigilante violence and working-class activism cover the western part of the city. Over 3,500 people lost their lives, 50,000 people were injured throughout the conflict that spanned the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (followed by sporadic violence even after a ceasefire). With only 20-22 years? since the peace agreement, memories of the violence are still fresh for many locals that lived through it, with most of them witnessing (and often much worse), horrific acts of violence, even murder of friends and family first-hand, on a daily basis. The Troubles (murder) was just part of life in Belfast.
Many ‘friends’ had recommended a Black Taxi Tour, as the best (and most respectful) way to educate yourself about the subject, as the tour will take you right to the heart of the conflict. Guides, living witnesses, who are very much willing to provide context to the politically charged art and memorials throughout the city, and share incredibly moving, personal experiences you could never glean by yourself.
I am ashamed at my own ignorance of the Northern Ireland situation. I was (minutely) aware but that is about all. A general, superficial, awareness gained from social media and the odd book, but, mostly, pure ignorance of what is a complex issue. My most guilty of assumptions being that the Troubles are over. Having seen it for myself, I now view the Northern Ireland issues, Belfast through a completely different lens.
Belfast’s “Peace Wall,” – a 14 metre high barrier still present across Northern Ireland, is the tour’s apex. Its erection in 1969 by the UK government (army) literally placed a physical barrier between Catholic and Protestant. Neighbourhoods were effectively torn apart, the Peace Wall tore a large part of the city in half, allowing passers-by access only during daylight hours. 40 walls in total, through Belfast, separating suburbs that are predominately unionist and nationalist. If added up together, they run for almost 30 kilometres.
The most famous of the ‘peace walls’, as they’re now known, divides the Falls and Shankill Roads in the western part of Belfast. One catholic one Protestant. The gates in Belfast’s peace wall still close at 7.00pm every night and open the following day at 7.00pm. The largest of the ‘gates’ was locked in 1972 and has not opened since.
The wall was meant to stop riots between tribal factions, hence the term “peace wall,” but the wall was as much a checkpoint as a barrier, giving police (and the military) the final say on who moved between the neighbourhoods and when.
Shockingly, today 22 2 22, the wall is still a dominant, physical representation, a stark reminder of the tensions still present between nationals and unionists. Newly built, (catholic occupied) council houses backing onto (close to) the wall are fully engulfed, protected by, reinforced steel cages to protect properties from objects thrown from the other side of the wall. Though nothing like it was a few decades ago, this vandalism is still a regular occurence.
Schools are still largely separated between neighbourhoods, with Irish Catholic and British Protestant children often never meeting or interacting despite growing up just a few streets away from each other.
Some sections of the wall offer striking and impactful proclamations of loyalty and dissent, others are dominated mostly by the graffitied slogans, signatures, and scribbled calls for ‘peace’ by residents and signed by prestigious visitors including the Dalai Lama himself. Stevie our guide provided us with our own marker pens “if it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama it’s good enough for you” I signed 22 2 22 Riff I regret now not also writing ‘Peace’.
The peace wall also advocates for different sides of other international conflicts, such as Israel and Palestine, as well as global figures of rebellion like Che Guevara. Whether or not you’re inclined to view a wall (a physical barrier)? As a symbol of peace?, It is still a sight to behold in it’s own right, a colossal, contemporary art-work one that will certainly move you and stay with you for some time after experiencing it.
We chose a guided tour but we were completely surprised at how close the proximity of the wall is to the City Centre? 2-5 minutes drive? A 10 minute walk from a vibrant, modern, (typical) capital city to what was once and still resembles in some parts, a political war zone? It would have been easy for us to walk from the centre of Belfast, from our hotel to the main Peace Wall that separates the Shankhill Road and Falls Road communities. From there, you can do a loop around the wall and see the murals on each side, plus get a sense of the different areas. We concluded our tour at the Crumlin Road Gaol and walked the short distance back into the city so we could get a more complete ‘sense’ of the area.
It is impossible not to be a little edgy, hesitant when speaking with residents of Belfast. The ‘war’ may be over (the killings have stopped), ‘the Troubles’ may have officially ended but there’s still a huge divide in Belfast – and this is far more than just the symbolic and physical stretches of concrete.
We arrived at Crumlin Road Prison, the end of our Black Cab Tour.
Stevie asked us his six million dollar question, which is he? Catholic or Protestant? Gail responded first, she wasn’t completely sure but opted for protestant. I was still not (fully) decided, earlier I was 100% sure Stevie was protestant until I was not. Towards the end of the tour, once we had arrived in the catholic districts, I changed my mind, I was now 100% sure Stevie was catholic.
He laughed, “well one of you is right” he must have asked this same question many many times and wasn’t (visibly) disturbed by our 50-50 answers. He showed us his right hand garnishing a rose-gold, criss-cross, platted gold ring. A Celtic ring. He revealed a similar style, gold chain, up until then, concealed underneath his shirt with an emblem 100% Irish on it. Stevie was 100% Irish Catholic.
Finally, Stevie explained to us that he bared his own personal, physical (and mental) legacy to the Troubles. A life changing injury incurred during his youth within the Troubles. He can just about live a normal life assisted by (lifelong) pain releasing morphine patches, renewed every 3 days. He will never recover. He has been offered an operation, risky surgery on his lower spine with only a 50% chance of success, and a 50% chance he might not ever walk again.
Stevie had been shot with a rubber bullet in the back and his spine is now incapable of producing lubricating fluid and his back will never fully recover. He showed us the rubber bullet that had done the damage along with an incredible B&W photograph of him attacking an armoured car with what looked like a telegraph pole. I asked if he had shared these memories (photograph) with his children/grandchildren?
“Aye, yes of course, and they laugh(ed)”!”
Coming from Liverpool, the second capital of Ireland, I have my own, family secraterian, routes. My mothers side, had strong protestant political connections, they were active ‘Orange Men’. Until I was of school age, mum would march me to Southport every 12th of July following the local Orange Lodge 12th of July celebrations.
Pre out trip, I was aware that due to Brexit, political tensions had recently risen in Ireland, the reality of a virtual barrier (border) in the North Sea, I mentioned this to Stevie and I mentioned Jeremy Corbyn specifically, his involvement in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and how he had been lambasted for it and that his involvement that some viewed as anti-British, had probably cost Britain the opportunity of ‘the greatest, socialist, Prime Minister we never had him’ and the Labour their election victory.
He was (obviously) aware but seemed reluctant to talk politics except that he had voted remain in the recent UK Brexit referendum, I asked if he ever thought it could really end, could Northern Ireland ever be fully integrated?
“No … not for at least another two (or even three) generations. It was still too soon. Just 21 years ago we were killing each other?” “I could be walking down a street, or having a drink in the City tomorrow and I could bump into someone I knew who had killed or been involved with killing one of my family?” “It is still too soon…..?”
What about a return to the violence? Brexit? Is that on the horizon again? “No, he explained, ‘the community’ do not want any more Troubles we have had enough of the violence, the killing, the misery, the suffering the daily fear. However, it is still raw and it is still tense but small steps taken by brave men and women are making a difference.
Stevie went on to explain his own small steps – he now lives in a non-segregated community, he had to relocate to do this. His children went to integrated schools and have both catholic and protestant friends, He goes to the pub, socialises with protestant friends and work colleagues but all politics are left at the door.
Stevies ‘Small Steps – “if I can do this then so can others”
“We ALL have to start somewhere”?
Those, difficult ‘Small Steps’ that might, (eventually) become bigger.
Thanks for Reading (see links below for further reading).