Belfast was my favorite city to visit on the entire island of Ireland, but probably for all the wrong reasons. The conflict that has taken place there and, to a lesser extent, continues to exist today is one that has crafted an incredibly fascinating and complicated history. The murals plastered on every street corner and on the walls that continue to divide the city will keep you questioning how such warfare has gone on for so long and so recently in a modern westernized country. Never before have I felt so close to history as I did in Belfast.
The history of the fighting in Belfast is an extremely complicated one that, as a Canadian, I can only begin to understand. I can now proudly say that I know much, much more having visited the country. Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK when Ireland separated to become its own country in 1922, with both Catholics supporting the Irish Republic and Protestants loyal to the crown occupying the country. Something that became really clear to me quickly is that the conflict is not, at its core, really about religion or religious freedom, despite the two sides commonly being known as Catholics and Protestants. It’s about a segregated group of people (Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland) who chose to rise up in a civil rights movement against the crown, and the fighting, hatred, and terrorism from both sides that resulted as a response to the movement. Anybody who denies wrongdoings from both sides is lying to him or herself. The revolutionary military organization of the Catholic side is the Irish Republican Army (IRA), often associated with the political party Sinn Fein, and the loyalist Protestant equivalent is the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). Bombings of buildings and killings of innocent people were quite frequent in Belfast from the 1960s right up until the war settled down at the end of the 1990s.
In the late 1990s taxi companies in Belfast started offering “Black Taxi Tours” – for a flat fee the taxi drivers will give you a bit of a tour around the city, explaining the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, before dropping you off at your destination. Many people, especially foreign tourists, have no idea of the intensity of the Northern Irish war that has taken place for decades in Belfast. The tours help to educate people on this situation. After all, isn’t that what we really travel for – to get a glimpse into what’s going on in the world around us? These tours have evolved into the most popular attraction in Belfast today.
On the morning of our tour, our friendly and smiling tour guide Paul picked us up at our hostel. He welcomed us, thanked us for calling him, and explained how we were going to stop at a number of sites over the next 1.5 hours, with a (hopefully) unbiased account of the events that took place in Belfast. Straight away we took off for our first stop – the wall that separates the Catholic side of the city from the Protestant side and the Catholic homes that sit along this wall. At this point our lighthearted and humorous host became somber for a few minutes as he explained how, before the Catholic movement, multiple families were forced into a single home. With only one vote per home the Irish Catholics did not receive fair representation. Thus began the struggle for Catholic equality in Belfast.
We made our way down the street, still in the Catholic side of the city, to a street containing many murals supporting the Catholic Republican side of the conflict. Nearby is the Sinn Fein headquarters, the side of which is painted with a huge mural of Bobby Sands. Bobby was an IRA volunteer whose death due to hunger strike in 1981 caused a huge surge in IRA support and media attention.
From there it was on to the Protestant side of the wall. Similar murals covered the wall – this time obviously supporting the Loyalists and the UFF. The 25 foot high wall was built to keep Molotov cocktails from being thrown over by both sides, and even today blocks rocks and debris being thrown by people trying to stir up trouble.
Finally, we took a drive through a very proud Protestant neighborhood, where the street curbs are painted in the Union Jack blue, red, and white and murals cover the walls of homes. Paul described the sad state of this neighborhood – how organized crime had grown out of the fighting and murals often celebrated the killing of Catholics or are used to strike fear into passers-by.
This is not a neighborhood where an Irish Catholic would want to be caught walking around, and even just driving through there to show us that side of the city was probably a pretty big risk for Paul. Organized crime and fear is not something unique to the Loyalist side of the conflict – the same can be found in Catholic neighborhoods.
The Black Taxi Tours have not been without their own problems. Paul would tell us stories about the start of the tours in the late 1990s. There were a number of people (likely from both sides) who didn’t like the information which was being told to tourists – mostly that which painted these groups in a poor yet honest light. There were a few times when his car was boxed in and windows smashed as a form of intimidation. The tour guides persisted despite the threats and continue to be one of the most popular attractions in Belfast, spreading information about the war to previously uneducated foreigners like myself.
Paul told us another story about a Norwegian woman and her daughter who took his taxi. They told him that on their previous tour the guide was extremely biased and outright stated that he would disown his son if he ever married a woman who associated with the opposing side of the conflict. It’s amazing that these biases still exist, especially among some of the tour guides. Paul proudly stated that he would be happy for his son to marry a Protestant woman as that would mean progress toward a more peaceful and united Northern Ireland. I guess we got one of the good ones!
Near the end of the tour I asked Paul why he thinks the fighting and the bombings suddenly slowed down in the late 1990s and early 2000s and continue to do so today. The answer he gave me, which seems to be a pretty popular opinion, is that the current generation just doesn’t see this as their fight. They want to grow up educated and peaceful, not at war with each other for historic reasons. The Northern Irish war started as a civil rights movement for the Catholic people, but that goal was achieved a long time ago. Now it’s just a conflict of hatred and revenge. Having talked to some of the young people in Belfast I would have to agree – they want nothing to do with the fighting and they want peace, but they tell you to watch what you say around some of the older generation. Paul’s son plays on a football team which is approximately 80:20 Protestant:Catholic and the kids couldn’t be happier.
Every Black Taxi experience is different. Guides have their own unique quirks, favorite locations, and stories that they tell. I have friends who took a tour with the exact same company and were taken to completely different locations throughout Belfast. Although I can’t recommend the Black Taxi Tour enough, your experience will likely be very unique.