Belfast After the Troubles
“How long are you going to be in the UK?”
“Two weeks,” I replied.
“And where do you go when you leave the UK?”
“Belfast!” I said cheerfully.
The passport control officer raised an eyebrow. A few awkward seconds go by … and I realized my mistake.
“Um … I guess I’m in the UK for four weeks,” I said sheepishly. “Sorry!”
He chuckled, repeated his question, and I replied again — correctly this time. But that exchange at London Stansted Airport Passport Control many years ago only affirmed for me that Belfast is and always has been an enigma to me.
I deliberately avoided Belfast on my first European walkabout, done by Eurail. I was young, the violence the Troubles had brought to that city was still very much in the news, and I did not have enough confidence in my travel skills to navigate such a city.
Since that, ahem, youthful time, I’ve had the good fortune to visit Belfast on four separate occasions, thanks to the hospitality extended to me by close friends. But it’s been more than a dozen years since my last visit, and with all the attention this past week on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I’m realizing I am long overdue to go back.
On my first visit to Belfast, only three years after the Good Friday Agreement came into being, my friends took me on one of those Black Taxi Tours popular with tourists. The driver takes you around to places significant to the history of the Troubles. My American friend was coy and did not let on that she lived in Belfast. Her Irish husband was careful not to speak while we were in the taxi to avoid betraying his East Belfast origins. He told me the drivers were on either the IRA payroll or the payroll of one of the Loyalist paramilitaries — we figured out pretty quickly that ours was a Republican.
One of the stops we made was in front of Divis Tower, a 20-storey tower of flats, which at that time still had a British Army observation post on its roof. The top two floors of the building were also occupied by British soldiers. At the worst of the Troubles, they accessed the post by helicopter only.
Another stop was at the Sinn Féin headquarters. We drove along Falls Road and Shankill Road, two flashpoints of the Nationalist and Loyalist communities, respectively. One of the interface areas we went by was much cleaner than any of the other streets we had driven along. I asked my Irish friend about it later and he told me that the reason was because every morning the mess created by the previous night’s rioting was cleaned up, courtesy the British government.
We also stopped at a so-called peace wall. These walls were built in the interface areas to minimize intersectarian violence. They have increased in both number and height since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
We finished our day in the centre of Belfast where my Irish friend showed me the security gates still standing at the entrance to the shopping district. The gates were wide open, but he explained to me how you used to have to go through a bag search before you could pass through them, and there would be another bag search at the entrance to each individual shop. The shopping area was a pedestrian zone long before such zones were fashionable — to prevent car bombs, naturally.
I learned some new vocabulary on that visit. Those of us outside the UK tend to define the conflict as between Protestant and Catholic, but in Northern Ireland, the division is between Loyalist or Unionist on one side, and Republican or Nationalist on the other. And interface refers to the areas where the Nationalist and Unionist neighbourhoods meet, or intersect.
One morning before we all headed out for the day (my friends to work, me to play tourist), the Irishman earnestly asked me not to go see the interface areas on my own. I assured him I had no intention of doing so. But his question made it clear: there were no-go areas of Belfast that tourists best avoid.
One day when I was on my own, I stopped by a tourist information office. One of the staff asked if I could spare a few minutes to answer some questions.
“Sure,” I said agreeably. But I smiled at her last question. Would I recommend Belfast as a travel destination to friends and family?
“Nope,” I said. I was being my usual direct self, so I elaborated and explained to her that the only reason I was in Belfast was to visit friends. When I told the story at dinner that evening, I said that it was clear to me, from what little I’d seen of Belfast, that there had been a lot of trauma, and there was still a lot of healing to do. My friends did not disagree with me.
That’s not to say the legacy of the Troubles overwhelmed every visit I made to Belfast. My friends always made a point of showing me the beautiful countryside that surrounds their city. The Giant’s Causeway is not to be missed. Nor is any place that gives you a view of the Mourne Mountains. One sunny morning, I had a delightful long walk on my own alongside the River Lagan.
It’s probably fair to say that without the Good Friday Agreement, my Irish friend might never have returned to Belfast after a decade of study in Canada, or chosen to raise his family there. But even so, I could see that life in Belfast was nothing like what I knew in Canada. Once, while we were out running errands, my friend braked suddenly at the sight of a group of police officers standing on a street corner.
“What are the police doing here?” she wondered. But her voice was full of tension. Police officers on a street corner in Belfast elicited a much different reaction from her than police officers on a street corner in Vancouver would elicit from me. I would be curious. She was afraid.
Although the Good Friday Agreement eventually brought peace to Belfast, and although an entire generation has grown up without the Troubles, there is still tension. Brexit has jeopardized two key elements of the Agreement: the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, known colloquially as Stormont, which has not sat for more than a year. These are not easy issues to sort out. Hopefully, they will be sorted without resorting to violence.
And maybe, one day, the peace walls will come down.