I looked down at the simple black gravestone below me as the drizzle fell on the grey cemetery. One name stood out among rows of brothers, fathers, sons and neighbours: BOBBY SANDS. ‘Over there, behind that Celtic cross, that’s where Michael Stone threw his first grenade into the crowd,’ said my guide, Pod Devenny, referring to the UDA attack on a republican funeral in 1988.
Devenny wasn’t there himself, though, because the former IRA man was five years into a 14-year sentence for possession of a firearm with intent. I can still remember the shaky newsreel: the lone assailant, the panicked mourners, a young Gerry Adams.
In the old days, a few intrepid tourists used to come and gawp at the murals. The new wave of weekenders – tourism is booming in Belfast – probably prefers just to enjoy the shops, restaurants and bars.
But I’d come to Belfast to do some history tourism and I didn’t fancy just hopping on an open-top bus. History is written by the victors, as the adage goes, but in Northern Ireland there were no victors. Responsible tourism requires a recognition of both unionist and republican versions of the Troubles. That’s why I was standing in the Milltown Cemetery on the republican Falls Road, after spending the morning visiting the loyalist strongholds of north and east Belfast and the Shankill Road.
The unionist tour
I started the day with Stephen Gough (not an ex-combatant), who set up Union Jack Tours in response to what he says is a lack of positive representation of the loyalist/unionist communities in Belfast. It’s probably true – while the republican movement has the myth, mystery and craic of Eire behind it, loyalists have more often been portrayed as po-faced and right-wing. America in particular has fallen for the IRA, and in PR terms they’re miles ahead. So it’s interesting to hear things from another perspective.
Some of the city’s battle scars are still fresh. We stop first at the Limestone Road in north Belfast – in the past ten years, it’s been the focus of riots and violence as unionists and republicans seek a foothold. Everywhere I look, there are signs of division. Fences like prison perimeters separate rows of houses to prevent blast-bomb attacks from republican neighbours. Homes and businesses lie empty at the ‘interface’ zones between opposing areas. And there are the ‘peace lines’ – gates patrolled by police and still closed at night. Everything reminds you that the Good Friday Agreement is a work in progress. But, Gough says, ‘The people who used to call themselves paramilitaries now work with community groups. There’s not many who want to see a return to violence.’
At Shankill Parade, near where the feared Ulster Freedom Fighters leader Johnny Adair once ruled, Gough shows me the many famous loyalist murals, with their depictions of historical victories, smiling martyrs and masked gunmen. Photographs can never convey the intensity the murals communicate up close. They are regularly repainted, and remain one of the strongest expressions of community belief.
The tour finished near the Rex Bar, where the UVF reportedly had their headquarters, on the loyalist focal point of the Shankill Road. It looks like a high street in any British city, apart from the proliferation of Union Jacks and Rangers FC supporters’ clubs. A few doors down from the Rex was the fish shop where, in 1993, an IRA bomb exploded killing nine civilians.
Gough had presented the loyalist movement as largely one of defence and reaction – communities standing up in the face of a seditionary and violent republican minority. As I stepped out of his car at the bottom of the republican heartland of the Falls Road (as far as he would drive in), I thought I had a clearer idea of what had happened in this city since 1968. But any imagined clarity was about to be thoroughly muddied.
The republican tour
‘Every inch of this road has a story – the shootings, the beatings, the arrests. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t go 100 yards without getting stopped at a checkpoint,’ says Devenney. He works for Coiste, an organisation for republican ex-political prisoners which leads guided walks in west Belfast.
I met him at the foot of Divis Tower, a high-rise residential block. Its top three floors were occupied by a British Army observation post until just four years ago. Further up the road, almost opposite the primary school riddled with bullet holes, I could see the International Wall, a show of solidarity with Palestine, Cuba and the Basque country. We met a guy Devenny knows, who had the physique of a boxer and an impenetrable Six Counties accent. Devenny told me he was an ex-Provo, who had served 25 years for murder.
On the busy road, more old black cabs passed us than cars. The Falls Road has the only public taxi fleet in Britain, apparently a legacy of the days when bus companies were too frightened to run services around here. A shared journey is about £1.30, and you knock on the glass when you want to get out.
We stopped at the house where James Connolly lived. Connolly was Scottish by birth, founded the Irish Labour Party, married a protestant and was executed by the British Army in 1916, perfectly illustrating the complexity of Northern Irish history.
Devenny then showed me the offices of Sinn Fein, decorated with a mural of hunger striker and nationalist hero Bobby Sands. I noticed the Hoops Barbers, decorated with (slightly out of date) Celtic FC heroes. As we walked, Devenney painted a picture of life in the Falls: enforced segregation, intimidation by loyalist paramilitaries and aggressive policing by the RUC. The most poignant part came in the cemetery at the end of the tour. The reality of the Troubles is 3,500 dead, many thousands more injured.
Belfast is presenting a shiny new face to the world, and it’s unrecognisable as the city that limped out of the ceasefire 11 years ago. But there are stories behind this rebirth – unpleasant yet irresistible stories – that deserve to be heard. Gough and Devenny were both engaging guides, clearly passionate about the histories of their communities, and both are now committed to the greater cause of reconciliation. It’s just a shame that they had to come from such different backgrounds to arrive there.
Where to stay
The Fitzwilliam Hotel
The Fitzwilliam Hotel is a striking and ultra-modern hotel in the city centre. It’s minutes from the Opera House, the Linen Hall Library and St George’s Market. There’s a great restaurant from Michelin-starred local chef Kevin Thornton that makes the most of local produce. Prices start from £149 per room per night.
Following the example of docklands around Britain, Belfast’s docks are undergoing a rejuvenation of their own, with new flats, a leisure complex and businesses springing up. The city is commemorating the legacy of the ill-fated Titanic with a new museum, but in the meantime, you can see the massive dry dock it was built in for an idea of the frightening scale of the vessel. Look out for Samson and Goliath, the giant cranes in the former Harland & Wolff shipyard.
The nearest train station is Belfast Central Station which is a 10 minute walk from the city centre. Visit www.translink.co.uk for information.
Belfast is served by two airports, Belfast International Airport (17 miles from the city centre) and George Best Belfast City Airport (3 miles from the city centre). The main airlines operating from these airports are Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and FlyBE (www.flybe.com).