Conflicting stories: A tale of two cities in Belfast

The Conflicting Stories guided walk through west Belfast gives a perspective on the Troubles from both sides of the divide

The Battle of the Somme memorial on the Shankill Road, west Belfast.

The Battle of the Somme memorial on the Shankill Road, west Belfast.

 

I am in the elegant lobby of the Europa Hotel, Belfast, but I could be anywhere. Around me are an eclectic ensemble of businessmen, shoppers, harassed mums and coffee addicts. It’s the essence of normality, yet it took just 20 minutes to walk from an area regarded, until recently, as among the world’s most dangerous.

My Belfast ramble began beneath Divis Tower, where I was joined by an assortment of visitors determined to gaze beneath the skin of this enigmatic, perplexing city. Greeted by a republican ex-prisoner, he began our Conflicting Stories walk with a nationalist perspective on the “Troubles”.

With plausible detail, he recounted how Catholics were discriminated against in employment, housing, and voting rights, while being policed by a sectarian constabulary. The Civil Rights Association was founded, but their marches were attacked, often by the police. Rioting erupted: loyalists poured into the Catholic Falls and entire streets were set ablaze. “Feeling defenceless, I joined the movement [IRA] to protect my community,” says our guide.

He then leads us down a rainy Falls Road where the ubiquitous murals act as the voice of the community. Americans tourists are taking selfies before the huge Bobby Sands mural in an area where he is venerated as an embodiment of Patrick Pearse. We investigate the International Wall, which is dedicated to the struggle of other liberation movements worldwide before entering our guide’s birthplace – Clonard. Here, he tells us, local people initially welcomed the British Army, but a brutal curfew when the area was locked down for two days with local people assaulted and homes ransacked, ended this relationship.

Generally cynical about politicians, our guide is, however, effusive in his praise for Fr Alec Reid of Clonard Monastery, who went out on a dangerous limb to get all sides talking and says he now supports the peace process.

Then, I muster the courage to ask the obvious question.

“What did you go down for?”

“Bombing shops”.

“Were you guilty?”

“Guilty as hell.”

“Why did you do it?”

“At the time, there was no other way.”

Peace Wall

Soon after, he brings us to the huge Peace Wall that still divides the communities and hands us over to a loyalist ex-prisoner.

An avuncular, pleasant-looking man, he immediately wants to know “what that lad has been telling ye?”

“The suffering of the nationalist community.”

With a wry laugh he tells us his people also bled. “Sure, the Catholics suffered, but my door was kicked by the army, loyalists were regularly beaten up and we too had no-warning pub bombing. It’s just they were always better at PR,” he says.

Certainly, there is a now a greater sense of deprivation on the Union Jack-adorned Shankill Road compared to the Falls. Education attainment trails far behind those for the nationalist community with the murals also appearing more defensive and backward-gazing. After visiting a Battle of the Somme memorial, we stop where Frizzell’s Fish Shop once stood. Here, our guide tells in graphic detail how, in 1993, a no-warning bomb killed nine innocent people, including two children.

“What did you go down for?”

He turns to me – eyes now colder and harder.

“No-warning pub bombing.”

“Why?”

“It was retaliation – we had to stop the attacks on our people.”

His phones vibrates.

Immediately, his eyes soften and he becomes lost in an endearment-littered conversation. Afterwards, he explains: “That’s my little wee niece. I’m going to her party tonight.”

Start point: Divis Tower, Lower Falls Road, Belfast.

Difficulty: follows easy city streets but involves a lengthy walk

Time: three hours

Cost: £18 (€20)

Book: belfastfreewalkingtour.com

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