This post is about an event that took place about a year ago. Any inaccuracies or obvious errors should be interpreted in that regard. Thanks!
Our driver greets us outside City Hall with a beaming smile and a firm handshake and leads us to the black hackney cab that is to be our “tour bus” for the next hour and a half. But we don’t pull away. Instead, our new friend turns to the three of us crammed into the back– all English residents of Belfast with an interest in the city’s history – and introduces himself. He then gives us a flavour of what we will see, explains his own background as a Belfast man who grew up on the Falls Road and experienced the full force of The Troubles, and primes us on the history of west Belfast. I can almost imagine a lectern where the handbrake resides. His enthusiasm for his work is immediately apparent. He describes how wonderful he feels it is to see the changes that have come to Belfast over the past 20 years and how pleased he is that tourists are now embracing the city. Interestingly, he shares with us several times his view that the likes of myself and my two friends, coming to the city to live and work, bring “normality”. Belfast has seemed pretty normal to me from the moment I arrived. It’s hard to picture the security checkpoints that used to screen entrants to Royal Avenue. It’s even harder to imagine the place where you live, work and play as a warzone. But he is adamant that we are signs of the new normal in the city.
I’d been living in Belfast for about 18 months by this point and had become familiar with its landmarks and its geography. Indeed, I’d already toured the west of the city by open-top bus and had even strolled down the Falls Road one cold and wet afternoon. But I’d promised myself that, at some point, I would take an iconic black cab tour. Plus, I’d not yet visited the loyalist Shankill. Upon leaving City Hall, we arrive first in that Protestant bastion of west Belfast. On a freezing cold afternoon, the streets are like a skating rink – so much so, we’re told to mind our step. I briefly wonder how a life-long resident of the Falls feels, standing in the middle of the Shankill, at the foot of murals depicting gun-toting loyalist paramilitaries. “This is my living. I do this every day, sometimes four or five times”, he explains. “But back in the day, like many people from Belfast, I had friends from the other side and we socialised and worked together in the city centre. But then I’d go back to the Falls and they’d go back to the Shankill.”
As he walks us round the surrounding streets of the Shankill, I’m struck by how quiet it is. We have the whole estate to ourselves, it seems. Everywhere are indicators of the locals’ pride in their British identity – I’d never seen so many union flags in one place. I also observe how close the Belfast Hills seem, shrouded in mist at their summits despite the blue sky over our heads. I can’t help but feel a twinge of unease at how close a mural featuring a figure in military fatigues wearing a balaclava and aiming a firearm is to a primary school. I think about what impact it has on the little ones who walk past it five days a week. Do they even notice it, I wonder. Some would say it’s part of the local culture and that the mural might not even be there if the likes of myself and my two friends didn’t want to come and look at them. Our guide jokingly suggests we consider purchasing the house for sale opposite the provocative artwork in question. My Geordie friend balks at the idea, unsure how his Catholic girlfriend would react.
Back on board, we cross the Shankill Road itself, with its bunting and its traffic and small businesses and tour buses. I wonder how many other cities in the world draw tourists into their housing estates. If The Troubles had never happened, I guess the Shankill Road, and indeed the Falls, would just be an unremarkable arterial route connecting west Belfast to the city centre. Our next stop is the Peace Line on Cupar Way, separating the Shankill from the Falls. It’s a surprisingly functional-looking structure, fashioned mostly from dark green corrugated steel. However, it is livened up somewhat by various images, works of art, graffiti and messages of hope. Our guide hands us all a black marker pen and suggests we write something on it. I’d read warnings online that leaving messages on the Peace Line was not welcomed or advised. Looking at the hundreds of thousands of signatures, exhortations to greater cross-community understanding and inane observations, I assumed that the locals had gotten pretty used to well-meaning rubber-neckers like myself leaving their insignificant thoughts behind and that no harm or offence could come of it. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it’s been weathered away or inked over by now. Peace Lines like the one on Cupar Way aren’t just a relic or a tourist attraction. The majority on both sides seem keen to keep them, reassured by their silent, towering presence. Our guide explains that there are moves afoot to start bringing them down and sounds optimistic about the idea one day coming to pass. But it’s hard to envisage it happening any time soon.
On crossing the Peace Line, we leave the union flags, the Ulster banners and loyalist murals behind us as we enter the Irish nationalist Falls area. Our first stop is Bombay Street, an ordinary-seeming cul-de-sac where homes jut up against the other side of the Peace Line. The street is infamous for the 1969 Burning of Bombay Street, and also features the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, dedicated to IRA volunteers who were killed during the conflict. Once again, I’m fascinated to be stood in a mundane residential street that wouldn’t feature on a tourist itinerary anywhere else but in Belfast, jostling for space with visitors from other parts of Europe and beyond. Our guide pulls some rubber bullets from his pocket and we marvel at just how much they differ from the image we had in our minds, especially in terms of size. It’s easy to imagine the damage they could cause, and it’s safe to say none of us will be volunteering to be target practice any time soon.
The Falls Road bears one immediate and striking difference to the Shankill. Whereas the Protestant estate is a sea of red, white and blue, the Falls is not equally bedecked in the colours of the Irish tricolour. Indeed, were it not for the Irish language on the road signs and the occasional nationalist mural, you might not even realise where you were. We stop again at the Falls’ junction with Sevastopol Street and join another throng of international tourists to get a snap of one of the most famous murals of all – a giant portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The colourful image adorns the side of a Sinn Fein office, and our guide points out the concrete bollards that line the front of the building, explaining, as if it were needed, what purpose they serve.
A little further down the road, closer to the city centre, we arrive at our final stop, the international wall in Divis. Rows of tourists stand on the opposite side of the road and wait for gaps in the traffic to take a photo of the various murals, many of them in solidarity with political causes around the world with which the Republican movement sympathises. Our guide explains how some are permanent, while others are only temporary and will soon be replaced by something else. My eye is drawn to the striking black, green and red section calling for the release of imprisoned Basque separatist Arnaldo Otegi and to a similar message of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
At this point, our tour ends. Our guide declares with surprising vehemence that we’d be welcomed into any of the nearby pubs. None of us is willing to put this to the test, so we stroll back into the city centre, and back to the new normal of which I feel lucky to be a part.