The stories of a couchsurfer

Belfast: Remaining tension

Political Murals

Western Europe today has the “luxury” in this world of being relatively peaceful – at least in recent history. Some countries may be disgruntled at the current state of their politics and some areas may even be pushing for secession, but these affairs are generally dealt with in a diplomatic manner and violence, discounting a few isolated incidents by radical individuals, is non-existant.

Some areas, though, continue to hold a reputation for harbouring hostilities. These hostilities may be arising out of unfolding events or the remains of conflicts some time ago. The case of Northern Ireland – and it’s capital, Belfast – would safely fall into the latter department.

Generally one can learn much from a city or region before actually visiting it by word of mouth from fellow travellers met along the way. Yet this wasn’t the case with Belfast nor Northern Ireland as a whole. As far as popular tourism goes, most will travel to Dublin or the southern side of Ireland as opposed to the north.

This meant that there weren’t a lot of expectations upon arriving. The conflict in the region was well known (the existence of, that is), however the current state of activity was unknown. This made the visit all the more interesting to discover first hand what the area is like today.

Upon arrival, Belfast greeted with a surprisingly fine day. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising as by this stage it was mid-August but the British “summer” up until now had not provided much hope of sun. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was comfortable enough.

Belfast isn’t the most populous town – even factoring in the urban area leaves it with a population of around five hundred thousand – but it’s low skyline hints at a lower population density, which results in the geographic extents of the town actually being quite large.

Getting around Belfast relies quite heavily on car transportation. There is no metro or tram line and the buses can be difficult to get a grasp of until one becomes well acquainted with their services. This is, in all fairness, along the lines of most other British towns of a similar or even larger size.

Belfast couldn’t be considered as clean as, say, Manchester either. Despite Ireland being known as the The Green Isle, inner city – and indeed even suburban – parks were a bit of a rare commodity. Residential areas were clearly devoted for housing and any small parklands that may have existed in between these sites were somewhat unmaintained and tainted. The solid brick or concrete walls that so commonly guarded buildings were often seen overrun by manic weeds.

This sight, combined with the often clouded sky and wet asphalt surfaces (the day of arrival was clearly an anomaly), often made for a pretty bleak and depressing view. When you did arrive at a dedicated parkland and you were lucky enough to experience the hour or two of sun that may be forecast for the day, the spirits were quickly lifted, as the beauty of the well maintained and deep green lawns and gardens were a sight to behold.

It’s advisable therefore, that when in Belfast and some sunshine is scheduled for the day, stay close to one of the parks (the Botanical Gardens is a good start) and rush there as soon as the clouds clear to bask in it.

While Belfast proved not to be the most well maintained city of Europe this didn’t surprise one bit. It was never expected to be. More interesting was the fact that there was little sign or indication of the conflict that had occurred for the last thirty years. The city was open and free and there seemed to be a good cohesion between it’s people.

Not that that means it was non-existent, it just wasn’t immediately visible. That’s also not to say that there was some sort of conscious effort by the council or government to hide any artefacts of it’s history, and it was pleasing to see that public expression was not concealed or muted in any way.

One of the primary forms in Belfast of this public expression is the mural, which are mainly painted onto the sides of houses or successively across concrete walls around town. The large part of these murals were slightly out of the city center and away from tourist attractions, so they are somewhat avoidable if one is to want to avoid them during their trip to Belfast. However, the murals have become so famed that they are now themselves a primary tourist attraction of Northern Ireland and many tourist offices hand out pamphlets and promote tours to these murals.

Typically, the murals stance would be biased, depending on what part of town you were in. For the most part, the murals were evidently dated and had been created years or decades earlier. Yet the fact that they remain maintained and there at all suggests a continued fight for the cause, or at a minimum a desire to ensure that the events won’t be forgotten. Also interesting to note is that it’s not rare to find a mural or banner that had been erected today, which suggests an even stronger continued feeling of resent between the two parties.

This is one of the first indications here in Belfast that, despite a much improved sociopolitical environment in recent years, there is still a certain level of tension that resides in the city and the region and that there no doubt continue to be radical individuals with strong ties to the movement.

Another form of public expression is the amount of flags raised across town, almost as a primitive form of marking one’s territory. They are absolutely rabid in some parts, with seemingly every building feeling the urge to raise one to promote their allegiance. Much like the murals, the distribution of these flags will be unsurprisingly heavily weighted depending on which part of town you are in, the nationalists flying the Irish Tricolour and the unionists flying the Union Jack.

Then there are the various “peace lines” around town – barricades, some twenty-five feet high and kilometres long – that were erected during the most violent times to separate the Protestants from the Catholics. The walls often consist of gates allowing traffic through during the day and will be closed off at night.

It’s remarkable to think that they still exist. Perhaps this is as sure of an indicator as anything of the continued aggression around town. For if the current situation had been assessed as peaceful, then surely these peace imposing fortresses would be torn down.

This article is in the process of describing what seems a very segregated, hate filled and potentially dangerous region, but in reality it remains quite calm. Aggression continues, but in a more passive, manageable form and the streets are quite safe to walk down. Why, your esteemed author himself walked home alone through the streets of Belfast in the early hours of the morning multiple times without ever feeling a sense of being threatened or in danger.

The motto here is something of a “don’t poke the bear”. If you don’t bring up the issue, then nobody is likely to hear your views and disagree with you anyway and, for the most part, you’ll remain innocent until proven guilty and will stay out of trouble.

The locals here are your stereotypically friendly and outgoing Irish. Socialising, even to strangers, is such a natural event to them. It makes it so easy to meet people and listen to their stories, which is fantastic, because in this town, they sure have some stories to tell.

So while it had to be remembered to not poke the bear, the discussions with the locals inevitably came back to the conflict anyway. Sometimes whether or not you wanted it to. It was important to tread a conservative line, remaining impartial and listening to both sides of the story.

Often, after a few more drinks than is advisable (yes, this stereotype of the Irish is pretty accurate too), they would begin to confide in you more. Perhaps more than you would like. There were stories about ongoing resentment, grim futures and of having friends that you wouldn’t want to meet. A favourite amongst them was the Europa Hotel in the center of Belfast – the most bombed hotel in the world with an (un)impressive 28 attacks.

For the majority of cases, this was likely just the famed Irish “gift of the gab” – stories and fantasies they like to try and scare tourists with. But the truth in it was that is was another sign of ongoing tensions here in Belfast.

What was also interesting was a lack of official information about the conflict. There were no museums dedicated to it where one could learn more about it’s history. Perhaps this was because the story was still being written, and has not been finalised but this was true too for the case of Catalunya and Barcelona still hosted a fantastic museum on it’s plight for freedom.

More so, it’s likely due to the fact that it would be difficult to create an unbiased museum, and the biased one that would result would only instigate renewed hatred from the opposite party. In the aforementioned case of Catalunya, it was safe to create a pro-secession museum as the entire region supported it.

Here, in Belfast, there are mixed feelings throughout the city, and any museum that could be constructed about the events would surely disgruntle some people.

Belfast is a lot more than a reflection of it’s troubled history, however. Whilst not being the most touristically gifted city in Europe, it does have it’s gems.

For the most part, the River Lagan – Belfast’s primary river – is underdeveloped and grim, but the so-called “Titanic Quarter” is a shining light. Belfast is where The Titanic was built and there has recently been a large museum of sorts built near the dockyard to guide visitors through it’s history. Far too expensive however, so no comments can be made on the actual contents of the tour.

The majority of the activity is in the city center, around the Belfast City Hall – a gorgeous old building on full display in the center of the city. Just as impressive is the Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street (not far from the Europa Hotel, actually) – a stylish old gin palace that has incredible wood crafting and stained glass windows that slip you back into the 1800’s.

Then there’s the Lanyon Building of Queen’s University – a stylish nineteenth century building that commands attention and provides a bit of a centrepiece for the lavish Queen’s Quarter of Belfast.

Not forgetting the Belfast Castle. Perhaps not as impressive as the name suggests (the word castle conjures up visions of immense grandeur), the Belfast Castle, on the northern edges of Belfast proper, is still impressive in it’s own right. Perhaps most impressive is that one is free to walk around most of it’s interior free of charge. While the current rendition of the building is a “mere” two hundred years old, it’s origins date back to the twelfth century. It’s gardens are nice (another top spot to wait for the two hours of sun you may get) but don’t compare to the gardens of it’s contemporaries. In this respect the Belfast Castle is a modest castle.

But this is quite fitting, for Belfast is, all in all, a modest city. In no respect could it be classed amongst the greats unless you consider political turbulence a classifiable category.

The key question when arriving in Belfast was how peaceful it is today. Steps have obviously been made in the right direction. Army checkpoints have disappeared and violence has greatly decreased. But one can feel the tension as they walk around town. A resentment suppressed but lingering.

Until the locals feel no need to stamp their territory with a flag, until no new murals are required to be erected and until the peace walls are no longer needed, this city cannot claim to be in a peaceful state.

Here’s hoping that the next visit will show further progress.

Belfast could likely be much more, but it’s hard not to think that it’s turbulent history has hindered it’s opportunities – even today.

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