On our final day in Belfast we started the day with a Black Cab Tour. The tours take you around a more residential part of the city, the location of many political murals encompassing the Troubles Northern Ireland experienced since 1968. As an outsider and someone unfamiliar with the political history of the area, I never would have known of these conflicts had it not been for this tour. A little background for those of you who are also unfamiliar: the Troubles started in 1968 due to a civil rights march, which was the result of tension and unrest between the Protestants and the Catholics. The main part of the divide resides in the fact that the Protestants feel they should be loyal to the Queen, and that they are part of the United Kingdom. Opposing this belief is the Catholics stance supporting the transition to a separate Republic of Ireland.
Our first stop was in the Protestant side of town. Our group was led mainly by two informative yet unbiased guides—one from each side of the opposing groups. The guides were knowledgable, talking to us about the events following the initial civil rights march and the repercussions in each neighborhood. One of the main events that occurred on the Protestant side was the building and burning of large bonfires throughout their community. The fires were built on the eleventh night, anticipating the twelfth of July, which was associated with the Glorious Revolution. The Twelfth has been known to be associated with violence, which worsened during the 30 year period of the Troubles.
Our next stop was what was called the “peace wall,” which was a large wall built to divide the two communities. Driving up to the wall, we passed roads with large gates known as separation barriers. Our guide informed us that every night at 6pm the gates are closed, solidifying the separation. We were able to get out and walk around near the peace wall. The wall was covered top to bottom with messages written by both visitors and locals, most of which expressed their disapproval of the divide. Sayings like “where is the love” and “love trumps hate” were the majority. It was eerie knowing that this degree of separation was felt to be needed by the people of this area. We were also informed that it was not uncommon for people to throw rocks or even objects like golf balls over the wall in attempts to harm those on the other side. It was to the point where the homes situated near the wall built protective barriers around their houses.
We finished our tour in the Catholic side of town at a memorial remembering those who were killed during the Troubles. We heard stories of victims being shot by rubber bullets and attacked on the streets. Hearing these stories really put things into perspective as to how severe this divide was, and how deeply the communities were affected by it. Our last stop was at a mural commemorating their most famous civil rights activist, Bobby Sands, who was known for his commitment to the Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA was an Irish republican parliamentary organization who’s goal was to separate Northern Ireland from the reign of the U.K. and bring together all of Ireland as its own independent nation.
Today, the Protestants and the Catholics are able to coexist in the city, doing things like working and shopping together. However, they still retreat to their designated communities once the work day is done, and once the gates are closed. I had no idea the prevalence of division in Northern Ireland, and this tour opened my eyes to the division, continuing to exist today.