Northern Ireland, The Troubles and the Political Tour

Belfast Political Murals

“Side by side, we stand like brothers
One for all and all together
We will stay united through darker days
And we’ll be unbeatable forever”

Ireland’s Call (The IRFU anthem) – Phil Coulter

The thirty year period between 1969 and 1998 in Northern Ireland is generally referred to as ‘The Troubles’ because during this period Catholics and Protestants, Loyalists and Nationalists waged bloody war on each other over the issue of the political status of the Province and in the process destroyed the political structure, the economy and the social infrastructure of the country.

During this time approximately three thousand, five hundred people were blown up, gunned down, assassinated or murdered and ten times more than that were wounded or injured.  To put that into perspective if this level of political violence had occurred in the rest of the United Kingdom then the number of casualties pro-rata to population would have been over one hundred thousand and if it had been in the United States it would have been six hundred and fifty thousand.

Given these statistics and considering the violence and destruction of property (by 1980 a third of the historic centre of Londonderry was damaged or burnt out) it seems to me that the term ‘The Troubles’ seems massively understated.  Troubles implies to me a little bad tempered spat, handbags at dawn or a bit of a playground punch up but this was much more than that, it was actually all out civil war.

Today we were going to find out more about it and back at the hotel we waited for our taxi to arrive to begin a tour of the troubled areas of West Belfast.  Some taxi tours remain rigidly sectarian and will only do either the Protestant Shankhill Road or the Catholic Falls Road areas so we had chosen Ken Harper Taxis because they promised to do both.  Bang on time our taxi arrived and the driver introduced himself as Lawrence.  He began by confirming that we were serious about taking the tour and asked if any of us were frightened.  We replied yes to the first and no to the second and the tour began.

We went first to the Protestant/Loyalist working class area of the Shankhill Road and pulled into a social housing estate where Union Flags were displayed prominently on every house and where Queen Elizabeth looked out from front room windows into the street, surveying her Realm and here on the gable ends of the terraces were the famous political murals of Belfast.

They paid homage to the Loyalist heroes of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, a deadly sniper pointed his rifle directly at us and here of course was King William III of Orange and a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne of 1690 which effectively established Protestant domination in Ulster and which has been celebrated every year since in the provocative Orange Day Marches on the 12th July*.  Being only a few weeks away preparations were already in place and on one corner of the estate was the wooden pallet base of what was soon to become a one hundred foot high bonfire.

In one place there was a rather discreet memorial to Oliver Cromwell and I asked about that.  Lawrence said that there used to be a full mural but it was taken down because it was considered offensive to Catholics.  Excuse me, all of these murals are offensive to Catholics and this explanation only confused me.  But then Ireland is an enigma, there is bad blood between the Republic and the North but when it comes to sport for example everyone gets on together.  Rugby Football, Hurling, Hockey and Cricket are all organised on an inclusive basis and only football retains a distinction between the south and the north.  Maybe the people who run the Ireland Rugby Football Union should be in charge of the political peace process?

Northern Ireland Belfast Peace Line

We left the Shankhill Road and drove now towards the Catholic/Nationalist Falls Road but our way was blocked by an ugly concrete and steel wall topped with razor wire which Lawrence told us was the ‘Peace Line’ built to keep Nationalists and Unionists apart and with steel doors which are closed at night to prevent fighting and confrontation.

There is currently an agreed objective of removing the Peace Line by 2023 – Another eight years!

I was genuinely shocked to see this, I really had no idea and in this moment I came to understand that the troubles are not over and that I was not on a tourist pleasure drive but I was seeing first hand the gritty reality of life in working class Belfast.  The wall is covered in graffiti and peace messages and Lawrence handed over some marker pens and invited us to make our contribution.

We passed now into the Falls Road and stopped in a memorial garden to fallen heroes of the IRA**  next to a row of houses where back gardens were protected by cages to prevent damage from missiles thrown over the wall and then to the offices of Sien Fein and the instantly recognisable face of hunger striker Bobby Sands staring out from perhaps the most famous Belfast mural of all.  As the tour came to a close we stopped one final time by a wall of murals all declaring solidarity with other worldwide political protest movements.

This was a highlight of our time in Belfast, it was both educational and entertaining and anyone visiting Belfast should not hesitate to take the tour.  Like a lot of people I had thought that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but Lawrence had demonstrated just how wrong I was.

http://www.harpertaxitours.com/

It was late afternoon now and we needed to lighten up a bit so after being dropped off back at the hotel we followed a walking route to a famous Victorian pub called the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon where we drank Guinness and made plans for the evening.

Later we returned to the Cathedral Quarter and a restaurant called ‘Made in Belfast’ where we had an excellent meal and watched a party table next to us overloading the table with alcohol.  I think that they were planning a very big night!

We didn’t stay long enough to get involved because we were planning an early start tomorrow and a drive north along the Antrim Coast.

 

* The Orange Order is an international Protestant fraternal organisation was founded in County Armagh in 1795 as a Masonic-style brotherhood with the principal aim of upholding the Protestant faith. Its name is a tribute to the Dutch-born Protestant King William of Orange. Its members wear Orange sashes and are referred to as Orangemen. The Order is best known for its yearly marches which take place not just in Northern Ireland but also in the USA, Canada and almost anywhere in the World where people from Ulster have emigrated to and settled.

** The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is any of several armed movements in Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries dedicated to Irish republicanism and the belief that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. The first known use of the term “Irish Republican Army” occurred in the Fenian raids of the Fenian Brotherhood an Irish Republican organization who were based in the United States on British army targets in Canada.

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27 responses to “Northern Ireland, The Troubles and the Political Tour

  1. I need to read more about The Troubles. I’m too ignorant on that subject.

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  2. Wow, I didn’t realise it was still such as active issue.

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  3. I was surprised at how these taxi tours are such big business. When I went one Saturday morning, there were 3 or 4 cabs in each spot, and as soon as we moved on a new cab replaced us. I wonder if the cabbies tell a few porkie pies – we’d believe anything they say

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    • I think there is a bit of theatre about it all but our driver did tell us that they can only go to a few selected places by agreement with the respective terrorist organisations that run the estates. I hope our taxi fares didn’t include a contribution to the UDA or the IRA!
      As I had a hire car I did consider just driving there myself but I have to say that I am glad that I didn’t.
      I still smile at your story about Bobby Sands looking like a girl!

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  4. Wow. I thought ‘The Troubles’ were over and done. Riveting stuff, Andrew. 😮

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  5. Wow. What a great tour and write up. I’d like to put a link to this post on Facebook and Twitter, if you don’t mind.

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  6. And the fence. I’d never seen a reference to it. It’s important not to ignore unpleasant things, but I am glad you ‘lightened up’ afterwards.

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  7. I grew up in NI during the Troubles – dark times indeed. Sounds like the tour was interesting and a pint in the Crown is just the thing to lighten the mood. The restaurant sounds good too – might just try it out when we visit again in a couple of weeks.

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  8. I really hope the time comes where the murals etc are wiped out forever from our city streets. Believe it or not, the majority of (decent) people in NI hate these relics of our tainted past, and I find it ironic that for years the troubles kept tourists away from here, now they flock to see things that commemorate that. Northern Ireland is a beautiful country – if you need any proof of that have a look at my own page. Its fantastic now that 1000s more are flocking to our shores and we love that, but please try and see what else lies beyond our tainted history.

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    • Of course I agree. Visiting the murals helps us to understand the history of Northern Ireland and make sense of the troubles. Please do not interpret this as morbid rubbernecking because I assure you that this is not the case.
      After Belfast we drove the Antrim Coast, inevitably visited Giant’s Causeway and then went on to Londonderry.
      As you say – a beautiful place!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Andrew, as someone born, bred and living here its maybe surprising to outsiders that the large majority of us looked at what was happening (all those years) as if aliens had invaded. Those killings, riots, skirmishes, whatever, were being carried out by factions most of us had no connections with. We just wanted to live our lives like everyone else in the civilized world. I fully respect the notion we need to remember those that died (for human reasons) and a simple dignified monument in our towns and cities would ensure that, but those murals continue to glorify and give credence to many of those involved in (what was) the internal destruction of this country (and our society) for decades. It is for that reason that many of us look upon those murals with disgust. I’m not sure if there are jovial little taxi tours around Serbia showing what happened there, or tours of Bloods & Cripps locales on Americas West coast but I’m sure the people of those areas don’t want to dwell on that past either, they just want to look to the future. On a lighter note though…. The Antrim Coast, i really hope you enjoyed it as much as I do when up there, maybe I shouldn’t say this but its easily my favourite County to explore. The entire coastline from Benone all the way round to Ballycastle is stunning (and that’s quite a distance). So glad to hear you saw up there. 😉

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      • Thanks for this insightful contribution to my post.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post. My favorite so far from Northern Ireland. I don’t know if we have time but I would really love to take this tour. I am very interested in all of this. Thank you for the information.

    Love the murals…

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    • It took no longer than 90 minutes so try and shoehorn it in if you can and be sure to use Ken Harper Taxis.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ok. I will thanks so much. I’ll have to see if my parents are comfortable doing it or not but I know I would like to.

        You and I like the same sort of things!

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      • Walter Windrum

        Hi I also work work with ken and Laurence doing the taxi tours. When I started these tours in 1995 from Arnies backpackers in fitzwilliam street Belfast. I did not realise what big business this would become. Both Kenny harper and myself worked as original Black taxi drivers in the belfast city centre during the conflict. Very scary times. At harpers tours you get a real feel of what Belfast was like. We also give a little glimpse of the future taking people to the titanic centre and cathedral quarter. We like to think that our tour is completely neutral.It is like a history lesson. I hope that if you are thinking of visiting Belfast you need to see the largest outdoor art gallery anywhere in the world. Walter Windrum

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  10. What an interesting post, Andrew – “the wall” stands as reminder of the “Troubles” or perhaps the depth of human convictions whatever their nature and these, often regretfully, cannot be erased with a signature and a handshake between a few…

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  11. This is a great post and I’m glad I read it. Thanks for making the effort to try and see the different sides and to share your reaction. I’m glad the messages on the wall were filled with peace. It’s disturbing to me when walls like this exist, and embarrassing when my own country erects them too (on the Mexico border).

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