Belfast, the Capital of Northern Ireland, is a city with a distinctly checkered past, a past that belies the laid back, welcoming nature of the people who live there. One of the most poignant, fascinating and eye-opening things to do in Belfast is to take a political tour around the city, where you get to hear the all about a conflict which many people today still know nothing about. A few of my friends flew over from London to check out what was to be a truly fascinating day…
For readers who are unaware of Northern Ireland’s recent past I’ll try to give a brief(ish) recap on what’s gone on, without getting too, too deep into the political issues affecting Northern Ireland.
Basically the country is split into 2 groups, Protestants and Catholics (which are both movements within Christianity). Crudely speaking, Protestants want to remain part of the United Kingdom (alongside Wales, Scotland and England) whereas Catholics would like Northern Ireland to cut ties with the UK, remove the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland (which is currently a completely different country from NI) and uniting the island of Ireland as one country.
These differing ‘religions’ have caused problems throughout Ireland for centuries, but the political problems came to a head in the earl 20th Century when eventually, in 1921, the Island of Ireland was effectively split into the two countries we know today – Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since then Northern Ireland has witnessed endless skirmishes with both sides (Protestants and Catholics) stating their claims. In 1969 ‘the Troubles’ began, a bloody 30 year conflict which cost over 3500 lives across the country. You may have heard of the IRA, or Irish Republican Army, who managed to garner a lot of support in the USA and have featured in various Hollywood movies. Officially, ‘The Troubles’ ended with a cross-party agreement in 1998 but of course a few signatures from the powers-that-be can’t dictate the actions of an entire population. Right, that’s enough of the history lesson!!
OK, so on your visit to Belfast it’s possible to take a black taxi tour of the city where the driver will act as your tour guide, showing you all the political hotspots across the city. Areas which, in recent years, you wouldn’t have been advised to walk around taking photos for your backpacking album.
For around $15 per person you’ll get around a 2 hour tour, the driver himself will be from one of the staunch areas that have been scene to various murders, bombs, beatings etc and he’ll probably be quite happy to explain his personal beliefs to you.
You’ll be taken to the Shankill road (100% Protestant) and the Falls road (100% Catholic) which amazingly run parallel with each other but are divided by a 25 foot ‘peace wall’ erected to keep the two sides apart and avoid further violence.
Your tour guide will take you around the infamous wall murals which represent various martyrs from both sides of the conflict, depending what area you are in, and in 2011 I’m happy to say you can walk around freely and snap away all day without any fear of being reprimanded.
This was one of the most interesting tours I have EVER taken in any country I have been in and I couldn’t recommend highly enough. With the Government talking about painting over the murals, you may not have the chance for ever so get yourself to Northern Ireland, learn about their past and experience their warmth first-hand. You’ll leave asking yourself how a country full of so many friendly people could be involved with such a violent history.
After all the morbid tourism, the tour with my friends continued on a somewhat lighter note!