The view I had of Belfast before I went was painted forty years ago when, as a child, I would hear about the nightly bombings, lynchings, and beatings that took place, of the Hunger Strikes and of the marches – along with the usual protests in Parliament. My picture was pretty simple, the Catholics wanted independence, and the Protestants wanted to stay within the ‘the Union’ – thus was born the Republicans and the Unionists and that was my world view of Belfast. It was somewhere akin to Beirut, but a lot closer to me.
Moving forward to a few weeks before we left for Belfast I was more concerned about the exchange rate – there isn’t any by the way – such was my complete alienation from Northern Ireland, the Six Counties, Ulster to give it some of its names depending from which side of the divide you came from.
Having arrived back to the news of the latest fighting in Belfast, in places we have been less than a few days ago, my picture of ‘the troubles’ is more complicated, fractured and distorted like the city.
The welcome in the shops around Central Belfast could not be warmer, the service is beyond anything I have seen on the mainland, attentive, polite, friendly and prompt, people want the peace to succeed and they are quite open to talk about their history, as terrible as it is. Waiting for the guided bus tour we were ushered into the Europa Hotel to be told that this was most bombed hotel in Europe, it was the Hotel of ‘choice’ by para-militarists wanting to make it on the evening news, but the hotel still stands, modernised, and proud. I have to admit I laughed at the delivery of the fact of the most bombed Hotel in Europe – not so much as matter of pride, more of the black humour I am used to as a Miner’s son.
The tour. our main way of seeing Belfast, proudly told us the Titanic, and how brilliant it was as it was tragic. Here is a town proud to have built the biggest ship afloat, at the time, that sailed for 12 days before sinking with the loss of 1,500 lives. I do feel that Belfast is cashing in on the popularity of the Titanic, but it is a go ahead city that is trying to make its mark on the world for the right reason, and I do not criticise it for that. After the Titanic area it is off to Stormont – the Ulster Parliament – and the tragic story of the birth of the State.
It is here where the fragmentation of my mind-set begins.
Apparently the discriminatory laws of Northern Ireland were not only against the Catholics, they were imposed for all non-conformists – for ‘nonconformist’ read ‘non Anglican’ – and affected every day life for thousands of ordinary people, I’ll leave it to your research to find the tales of discrimination in policing and housing that affected this city. Amazingly it was not until 1969 that the ‘the Troubles’ erupted into violence, and Belfast became ghettoized behind the euphemistically named ‘peace walls’.
As the tour wound its way around the City we ended up, at last, on the Falls Road, and later the Shanklin Road, where a lot of trouble erupted making it into a battleground. It is a weird experience going around these areas on an open top bus, it is almost like touring around African Villages in the Masai Mara, its intrusive, people look at the tour buses and they know they are being talked about in the third person, whilst it is voyeuristic it is also the safest place, in my imagination, to see the areas so often talked about.
Flags are very visible and to be honest whilst I see the Union Flag in the UK being displayed as ‘twee’ in Belfast it becomes slightly ominous on the Falls Road, even more so the Red Hand of Ulster which is plainly sectarian in the way that the St Georges Flag is sectarian. Flags, and words, and names and places all become political and they perform their old function of marking property and marking boundaries. Thankfully the areas of Belfast that have retained this tribalism are few and far between, but still the history associated with the emblems remains prevalent.
Their is a shame about all this, the people of Belfast are lovely people, with a humour to match. On the tour we were shown the Ice Hockey Stadium, in the quest for a politically neutral sport to unite the City it was decided the form an Ice Hockey Team, the first name – the Belfast Bombers, which was quickly changed to Belfast Giants – I love that story, its something we would do in Sheffield!
Over the past few days Belfast has shown it is far from healed from the aftermath of the troubles, but it is healing and healing fast. Despite the press it is safe destination, but be aware that some factions do not want the wounds to heal, the Marching Season will cause friction, but the more we get to know each other the more we realise that we are the same, and that the marches will become a relic.