We took a couple of days out over the Christmas holidays to go and check out Belfast, my friend had never been there before, and suck up some of its history along the way.
As a fan of the walking tour, the first afternoon we spent walking up the Falls Road in the company of a Republican ex-prisoner, then back down the Shankill Road with a loyalist paramilitary (retired). A bleak grey day was well suited to the surroundings, starting at the Divis Tower, all that remains of the infamous Divis Flats that made regular appearances on the TV news back when I was a lad. The flats were terrible accommodation, for the poorest of the Belfast working class, ridden with damp and decay and housing 4,000 catholics at their peak.
“When a family moved out we would move in destroy the place” our guide Robert told us, who had grown up there. “That way they couldn’t move any other poor unfortunates into them”.
Robert was a great guide, affable, eloquent and steeped in the history of the place. A less likely looking person to serve 12 years behind bars in the H Blocks you couldn’t meet, but hearing first hand about the how and why of the hunger strikes and the dirty protest brought the reality of what happened home.
At the top of the Falls Road he took us through “Checkpoint Charlie”, an automated gate through the “Peace Wall” that separates the republican and unionist communities. The other gates are manually closed at 6pm each evening, this one is automatically controlled and viewed by camera 24/7 so it can be closed when necessary – “21st century sectarianism” says Robert. His mission now is talking to both communities to start to open up the gates for longer, and bring some trust back into the neighbourhood.
We are handed over to our Unionist guide who walks us back down the Shankill, past all the memorials to the fallen in many wars. The feeling of “hanging on” pervades, whether from his commentary or the kids hanging about, but it is clear that everyone reckognises the demographic numbers game that will bring a catholic majority in the North by 2030.
Back to the bottom of the road and across to the Divis tower as the rain started to fall, well worth the three hours for the education. Reconciliation is an easy word to say, but how hard it is to put into practice.