“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?
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.
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.