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Belfast: After the fighting ends, the tourists come

By David de Sola, CNN
  • Reminders of the bitter fighting draw tourists to Belfast
  • Taxi drivers and prisoners groups offers tours that center on landmarks of "the Troubles"
  • Citizens who lived through the violence conduct the city tours

Belfast, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Belfast may no longer be the hotbed of violence it was decades ago, but the legacy of "the Troubles" is visible all over the city: miles of "peace walls" that keep Catholic and Protestant communities segregated, political murals painted by supporters from both sides and markers and monuments to people and places affected by the fighting.

The fighting raged for nearly three decades. Thousands of people died between the riots of August 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a period known as "the Troubles."

The central political issue was whether Northern Ireland, which has a Protestant majority and had been part of the United Kingdom since 1920, would become part of the Irish Republic. Republican and Nationalist activists, who were predominantly Catholic, fought for reunification with Ireland, while the Protestant Loyalists and Unionists fought to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Now tourists explore the streets and neighborhoods where much of the violence took place. There are a range of tours run by taxi drivers or ex-prisoners groups that take visitors to key locations.

"I lived throughout the Troubles in Belfast, experienced most of the things that happened," said Alex Patterson, a taxi driver who has been doing Troubles-related tours of the city for the past six years, "And I pass this information on to local tourists who want to come out and have a look, and insight into the Troubles as well."

It seems peace has reaped dividends in Northern Ireland where tourism is concerned.

The number of tourists visiting the city has jumped from 400,000 in 1999 to 1.7 million visitors today, according to Fiona Ure, a spokeswoman for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau. Tourism revenue during that same period has spiked from 100 million pounds to 451 million pounds.

There are no hard numbers available for how many of these visitors go on Troubles-related tours, but Ure estimates that between 10% and 50% of them mention some interest in the Troubles.

At the Belfast Welcome Centre, there are brochures for at least seven different taxicab tours of Troubles-related locations throughout the city. Belfast is also home to some of the most famous political art in the world, and murals depicting both sides of the conflict are a part of every tour.

The taxi tours began after the 1994 ceasefire when a few enterprising cab drivers discovered there was tourist interest in seeing West Belfast and the political murals, Ure said.

Patterson's recent two-hour taxi tour cost about $45 and started in a residential area of the Protestant Shankill Road, where some of the more famous murals have been painted along the sides of houses. Among the most well-known is a picture of a paramilitary fighter wearing a hood and pointing a gun. One guide described it as "the Mona Lisa of the Shankill" because of the effect that no matter where you stand, it always looks as though the gun and the eyes are on you.

Elsewhere on the Shankill Road, a mural and a plaque commemorate the dates and locations of Republican attacks on Protestant establishments during the course of the conflict. In August 1975, the Bayardo Bar was the target of an IRA gun and bomb attack. Today, a few parts of the original structure remain, built into a larger memorial to the five Protestants who were killed in the attack.

Patterson stopped on Cupar Way, the Protestant side of one of Belfast's most famous peace walls, or "peace lines." A few minutes later, he drove around to the Catholic side of the wall on Bombay Street.

Bombay Street was the site of one of the most notorious episodes of the 1969 riots, when Loyalists burned much of the working class Catholic community to the ground. The homes that now exist along the peace wall have metal cages built on the exteriors facing the wall as protection from any debris or projectiles thrown from the other side.

While here, the driver produced a sample of a rubber bullet fired by British forces to do crowd control during riots. Approximately 4 inches long, an inch in diameter, and weighing no more than a few ounces, the bullet was supposed to be fired at distances of 100 meters or more, but according to Patterson, were often fired much closer.

The tour concluded with a visit to the heart of Falls Road, the Catholic stronghold of West Belfast, which includes a mural commemorating the 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981, the Republican party Sinn Fein's office, and other political murals.

Another option for tourists interested in learning about the troubles is the political tours offered by former prisoners groups from both sides of the conflict. Coiste offers a detailed walking tour of the Falls Road neighborhood told from a Republican perspective, while their Loyalist counterparts from the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre (EPIC) offer a similar tour of the Shankill Road.

"We get our history not from having read a book or something like that, we've actually been involved directly. As a result of that involvement, most of us have spent long terms of imprisonment," said Seamus Kelly, Coiste political tour coordinator.

"It's about people who are actually able to give a living history, and I keep repeating that because I think it's important people get a feel for how people became involved in a conflict, why they became involved in it, and where they see themselves in the present day."

Ultimately the tours are about closure and contributing to the peace for the guides who give them.

"It helps us to cement the peace process, to get an understanding of our former enemies. It also gives them the same opportunities. We're involved in a peace process, so therefore you have to be looking at every aspect of how (to) build peace, how (to) ensure that we won't return to what people describe as the bad old days," Kelly said.

So how does it sit with locals that so many sites that were flashpoints in the conflict have now become tourist attractions? Taxi driver Patterson said tourism is better than the alternative.

"I think it's better people come here, get a bit of an insight into it, the murals that are on the wall, it's the biggest outdoor art gallery in the world, and that's how people now express themselves. I think it's better them doing that with a paintbrush in their hand rather than a gun."