Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Healing the wounds on all sides

When I last visited Belfast, the Good Friday Agreement was still a pipe dream.
Honouring hunger striker Bobby Sands MP on the Falls Road

There was an uneasy tension in the air.

The Troubles had ended, the guns were silent, but nobody knew what was coming next and three decades of conflict had left very visible physical and psychological scars.

Nobody ventured into the city centre late at night and it was quite shocking to contrast the eerie silence on the streets around City Hall with the vibrancy of my native Galway, a much smaller city, at the time.

The military bases, barbed wire fences, and ugly lookout posts still scarred the landscape across West Belfast and it would not be an exaggeration to say that parts of the Falls Road looked like towns in Palestine today.

The locals told me they were a people living under siege and they were weary after so many years of turmoil. At night, they stuck to their own area.

Those who did want to go into town had to face body searches at military checkpoints. "Going to town" for  few drinks was not part of the culture as it was in Galway on a Friday or Saturday night.

Naively, after a few late drinks in a city centre pub, I flagged down a taxi on a street two blocks away from City Hall.

It was 1am on a Friday morning and the only other person on the street, apart from my brother and I, was a much older man who hurled a pint glass, successfully, at a passing “paddy wagon”. The Royal Ulster Constabulary officers inside the vehicle just drove on, making me feel that this must have been a pretty regular occurrence in the city.

In Galway, if you tried the same thing outside Supermac’s in the early hours, you would have been chased down by the Gardai and hauled before the District Court for committing the same offence.

My brother reprimanded me gently for being naïve enough to think it was ok to flag down a cab on neutral ground.

This, after all, was the city in which ordinary people were picked up in black cabs, tortured, and killed, just because of their religious backgrounds.

An entire wall in West Belfast is dedicated to those
who were murdered with the collusion of security forces
My brother was considered a “legitimate target” by loyalist killers at the time, given that he was working for the Irish Government in a bunker near Stormont. He used to escape to a completely different world less than two hours away in Dublin at weekends.

Loyalists and Unionists were enraged that civil servants from Dublin were in their midst, negotiating frantically with their counterparts from London and Belfast in a bid to iron out a peace agreement which would somehow appease two bitterly divided communities.

He was only allowed to use one taxi firm, staffed by relatives of security forces, if he dared to venture into the city centre at night at the time.

I remember being taken aback when the driver asked us if we were Gardai as he carried my brother to his bunker outside the city. The only people from the Republic he carried in those days tended to be civil servants or members of the security forces.

Over 20 years later, I thought about that taxi ride to Co Down last week when I spent four hours on a fascinating walking tour of the Falls Road with a former IRA prisoner.

As he brought me on a tour of the area’s murals, with visitors from Germany and Italy, telling us an admittedly biased history of The Troubles, I was struck by how much the psychological barriers remain in place even though so many of the security barriers have been taken down.

Paul Mac An Airchinningh works as a taxi-driver most of the time, when he’s not telling tourists about the Republican conflict and his memories of far more troubled times.

Tour guide Paul Mac An Airchinningh
at a memorial to remember Easter 1916
As we walked towards the ‘Peace Wall’, Paul gestured towards the loyalist community just a few hundred metres away.

The people down there would never dream of coming to the shops nearest to their houses for a pint of milk, because they were on the Falls, he told me.

And he would never dream of drinking in a pub on the Shankill Road, even if it was just a five minute walk from where he starts his tours in the mornings.

In his mind, he has a map of Belfast. The people who take his cab from the depot in West Belfast never, ever ask him to bring them to loyalist areas to the north and east of the city.

Paul himself would not dream of staying in my accommodation across the river for the week, surrounded as it was by Union Jack flags on lamp-posts at the height of the marching season.

For all he knew about the place where I was staying, across the divide, it might as well be Beirut, he told me with a wry smile.

He was 60 years old and didn’t have Protestant friends. He thought it was sad, but didn’t think that was unusual, given his status as a former Republican prisoner who had associated or shared cells with men who died on hunger strike during one of the worst years of the conflict.

In the Sunflower Bar, once the scene of a terrible sectarian gun attack, I found Protestants and Catholics, gays, straights, and tourists, mixing to celebrate their shared love of traditional Irish music.

I even met people from Chile who had come to Belfast for the Irish music and the spectacular scenery along the coastline.

They had no awareness of the fact that the pub had once been sprayed with bullets, and three people died, just because they happened to be from the nationalist community.

Belfast has changed so much for the better.                                    
The Titanic Experience is hugely popular with visitors
from all over the world

The Titanic Quarter attracts tourists from all over the world, the pubs and restaurants of South Belfast are thriving, and people are no longer afraid to venture into the city centre after 7pm.

The horrible security barriers and checkpoints have disappeared and wonderful new hotels have popped up through much of the city centre. Visitors are no longer told that the city’s only hotel is “the most bombed hotel in Europe”.

The barriers have gone, but less visible barriers remain in place.

It still seems striking that in a city of 300,000 people there are still whole neighbourhoods where taxi drivers feel reluctant to venture. In Paul’s mind, his map of his native city is full of grey areas where he has rarely or never driven his cab.

On both sides of the ‘Peace Wall’, wonderful tour guides tell the tourists about the injustices which were inflicted upon them by terrorists or State forces.

Without realising that they have so much in common with those on the other side.

The good people of Belfast have always had
a brilliant sense of humour through troubled times
Belfast is a great place to visit for a few days and it’s brilliant that most of the barriers have disappeared.

It’s going to take some time, though, for the invisible barriers to disappear and for both communities to heal.

Because it’s far harder to hate people when you attend the same schools, work in the same places, support the same teams, and socialise in the same pubs and clubs.

Hopefully someday, in the not too distant future, taxi-drivers like Paul will have a map of the entire city in their heads. Only then can we say that the peace process has succeeded in healing the wounds on all sides.

For excellent guided walking tours of the murals of West Belfast, you can find details at http://coiste.ie/

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. To hire Ciaran for content writing or indepedendent journalism, see http://ciarantierney.com/


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