Taking the trouble

Patrick Steel, 13.11.2018
Tours of Belfast reveal the human stories behind a complex history
As an outsider with only a slightly better grasp of Northern Irish history and politics than the current Northern Ireland secretary, the lasting impression I got from the political and cultural tour of Belfast – one of the tours offered on the last day of the Museums Association’s Conference and Exhibition 2018, organised by Urban Villages and National Museums Northern Ireland – was that the city’s history is both extremely nuanced and very raw.

With factions of factions on both the unionist and nationalist sides, splintered along religious, socio-economic, geographical and cultural lines, the history is a maze as hard to navigate as the layout of Long Kesh prison.

Billy Rowan, a member of the Ulster Defence Association and our tour guide for the unionist side of East Belfast, illustrated this for us with a story about unionist snipers engaging British soldiers to warn them they could not behave with impunity in the area, following the deliberate running down of two young men from the loyalist community by a British tank. This aspect of the relationship between unionists and the British army was a new narrative for many of us on the tour.

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Billy Rowan

But our day, which took in walking tours of unionist and nationalist East Belfast, and visits to the Culturlann, an Irish language, arts and cultural centre on the Falls Road, and the Roddy McCorley Museum at Moyard House in West Belfast, put us in the hands of people from all sides of the conflict who had lived through “The Troubles” and were now bravely giving their personal testimony of that experience.

Through that human connection, in the face of criticisms of so-called “dark” tourism, we were able to gain some insight into what that complicated history meant to those who were living through it.

Everyone we encountered, on all sides, agreed on two things: Brexit, in the words of Joe Austin, a senior member of Sinn Fein and our guide through West Belfast, “is a disaster”, which, combined with political turmoil in Stormont, threatens to destabilise the peace process; and tourism is good for the city, to the extent that our guides in East Belfast lamented that West Belfast has been more astute in the way it markets itself as a destination.

The walking tours took us down terraced streets, but fears that we might be intruding on people’s privacy were assuaged by our guides and by the way in which people we encountered (with the exception of a group of men in a car park off the Newtownards Road who warned us off taking photographs as they painted a fresh mural depicting figures wearing balaclavas and holding guns) seemed relatively unbothered by us.

The mural painting was one of several moments that jolted us between past and present. Walking in the shadow of the “peace wall” along Bryson Street, that separates the Catholic and Protestant communities – one of around fifty that divide the city – was another. 

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"Peace" wall, East Belfast

Most local residents would prefer not to live with the walls, John Quinn, our guide on the nationalist side, told us, but despite this there is a risk-averse reluctance to tear them down, and he estimated it would take another generation before they disappeared completely, despite an ambitious government target to remove them all by 2023.

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John Quinn

Ella McMahon, who supported John on the tour, had lived on the street, and could remember a time before the wall. We followed her and John to a memorial garden marked with tiles depicting the faces of men who had been killed in the violence. One of them was her brother.

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Ella McMahon

It was clearly painful for her to share this with us, as it was for Kevin Carson, a former prisoner at Long Kesh, to describe how the prison’s guards lined up to beat him on his way to and from the shower block. But hearing them telling us of those experiences in their own words brought home the human cost of the war in Northern Ireland in a way more visceral than a book, film, or even museum exhibition ever could.

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Kevin Carson

Over the course of the day we heard several different narratives about the conflict and were left to judge for ourselves where the bias lay, but there was no doubting the sincerity of all of the voices we heard, and the power of their individual testimonies.

I left both moved by the way in which those we met were working to overcome the past, and stimulated to find out more about the city’s history and future direction. It may already be too late for the Northern Ireland secretary, but this tour would be a good start if she wanted to begin getting under the skin of Belfast past and present.

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