Belfast Taxi Outside City Hall
It’s not your conventional tour. But then Belfast is not your conventional city. Nor is Michael Johnston a conventional tour leader. Michael was a taxi driver at the height of the Troubles, which forced him out of his own city. ‘I’d lived here all my life, but the Troubles were too much for me. Fifteen innocent taxi drivers were shot dead, so I decided to leave. I’ve lived in New Zealand, Canada, Dublin, the USA… but I missed Belfast so much that I had to come back, and I returned to driving the black cab when things seemed to have improved a wee bit.’
Michael got so many requests from visitors to take them round the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas that he decided to offer organised tours as well as doing his regular cab work. ‘Most people do want to see the areas they’ve seen on TV, and they want to know more about what’s gone on, you know? You can ask anything you want to ask. Most people are a wee bit shy, but they want to know, so just ask. And feel safe. It’s perfectly safe, and feel free to take photos if you’s have cameras. People don’t mind, they want you to see the murals.’
We drive out of the compact city centre and make our first stop.
‘On the left-hand side,’ says Michael, ‘is the Crumlin Road Courthouse, where they used to try the terrorists. There’s a tunnel under the road so that when they were sent down, they went straight into the Crumlin Road Jail that you see on the other side. That’s no longer in use, but these are both Listed Buildings, and next year sometime they are opening the Jail as a Public Records Office, where people can come and trace their family history.’
Martin McGuinness spent several months in that jail in 1976 after being charged with membership of the IRA, though the charges against him were eventually dropped and the present Minister for Education has never been convicted of a terrorist offence in Northern Ireland. Everyone you speak to in Belfast seems optimistic now about the future, that the peace process will hold, and as the taxi takes us into the Shankill Road and later the Falls Road, you see what a monumental task the politicians have faced, and still face.
‘In the Shankill Road,’ says Michael, ‘you’ll see everything is red, white and blue. Here we’re only maybe 400 yards from the city centre, people don’t realise how close it all is. You’ve the Shankill Road and the Falls Road both run out of the centre, parallel to one another, only a few hundred yards apart. But people now on both sides are trying to educate the children out of this trap, they’re building parks, and playgrounds and football pitches, to give the youngsters something else to do.’
We drive along the Shankill Road, looking like any other shopping street in any working class area of any British city on a pre-Christmas Saturday. Plastic Santas stare out of shop windows, mums push prams, dads follow along pretending to show an interest in doing the Christmas shopping. Then you see a bit of painted graffiti: ALL DRUG DEALERS WILL BE SHOT. ‘You get that on both sides,’ Michael points out.
You also get the bold and colourful wall murals, by the dozen, far more than I’d expected, and decorating the sides of shops on the main street as well as in the housing estates. A Japanese tourist is photographing a painting showing the Ulster Volunteer Force as heroes, and next to it the Ulster Freedom Fighters who are SIMPLY THE BEST. ‘You can see where Catholics have come into the area and thrown paint bombs at it,’ says Michael.
But we know it’s more than paint bombs that get thrown, as Michael drives us down Lanark Way, known as Murder Mile, where tit-for-tat killings took place. At the end we reach the sadly named Peace Wall, built to separate the two sides and try to reduce the violence. It’s a depressing sight in any city, a concrete and steel block, topped by barbed wire, burnt by petrol bombs, the houses on either side of it with blackened window frames, smashed doors, like some Hollywood nightmare of a futuristic society blighted by violence. The hope is that here it is past, and the Peace Wall becomes a symbolic name, the wall itself torn down like the Berlin Wall by the people on either side of it. Today it is covered by messages added by visitors from all over the world: PEACE FOR ALL IN NORTHERN IRELAND, VIOLENCE DEFEATS THE CAUSE and ONE GOD, ONE PEOPLE. NICOLA, USA.
We drive through the Peace Gates, which used to be locked at 6pm to keep the two sides apart. On the far side is the Falls Road, the Catholic area, which is a mirror image of the Shankill Road except that the colours here are green, white and gold instead of red, white and blue. In windows you’ll see the Pope instead of Ian Paisley, but everyone here is Christmas shopping too.
On this side we pass the Royal Victoria Hospital: ‘They’re good at fixing elbows and knee-caps,’ Michael says ruefully, ‘and they’ve a very good burns unit. People come from all over the world now to be treated here.’
The murals and slogans are here too, painted with just as much colour and conviction, one a tribute to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers. We visit Milltown Cemetery where Michael Stone opened fire and threw hand grenades at the funeral of the Gibraltar Three, sending three more people to an early death. Giuseppe Conlon, whose innocent death in prison is depicted movingly in In the Name of the Father, is also buried here.
If the tour sounds depressing and voyeuristic then that’s only a small part of it. It’s a fascinating and deeper look into something only familiar from the news stories. It’s finding out for yourself what Belfast is like instead of imagining it, and discovering it’s full of good food, good drink, music, beautiful buildings, museums and, ironically, the friendliest people you’ll find anywhere.
‘Belfast sits in a magnificent valley,’ Michael tells me, ‘and I’ll take you out now and you’re going to get a magnificent view in a couple of minutes.’
And we do. Despite it being a dull day, we can see across the city, across the Catholic and Protestant areas and over the city centre with its cathedrals and towers and Listed Buildings. And on the furthest side from where we are, some 12-15 miles distant on the side of a sloping green hill, Michael points out an old building that looks like a country mansion and is hit by a patch of sunlight shining through the clouds and painting it golden. It is, says Michael, Stormont.
Stormont Parliament Buildings
This piece first appeared in The Independent on Sunday newspaper and won the author a British Guild of Travel Writers travel writing award.
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