From the comfort of our bus seats, we glide quietly down the highway on our way from Dublin to Belfast. We are barely aware of the boundary we are crossing – only a modest chime emitted by my iPhone and a text message that I have entered the United Kingdom and roaming charges may apply.
Looking out our window, it’s the same lush landscape, the same blue skies. But, somewhere out there, we crossed an invisible line. A line that has nothing to do with landscape or geography. Just politics and conflict.
These days, Belfast has all the appearances of a thriving, vibrant city. Downtown shops and pubs are busy. It’s at the edges that the city’s tragic history becomes immediately evident.
To the east lie the docklands, where the RMS Titanic was built. Today, the shipbuilding yards have been rebranded the Titanic Quarter. All about are striking new buildings and, at its core, is the centrepiece, the Titanic Belfast Museum. Its facetted aluminum walls shimmer against the blue sky while, inside, a much darker history is portrayed, albeit with the atmosphere of a family-friendly, amusement park.
To the west, a more recent tragedy is still all too striking. In 1968, The Troubles engulfed Northern Ireland and Belfast in a thirty-year guerrilla war. 3500 lives were lost during that conflict, almost half of those in Belfast. Today there is a tenuous truce, the result of the 1998 Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement. To be sure, conflict continued well past that accord but at a simmer, not the boiling point of the three earlier decades.
Belfast’s black taxi tours are a good way to explore the two sides of the conflict. Ours was, in fact, a white taxi, a colour more in keeping with our guide’s interpretation of events.
Clearly from the Republican camp, he nevertheless focussed on the success of the 1998 peace accord in calming the Republican/Catholic and Loyalist/Protestant divide that gave rise to The Troubles. And his focus was reinforced by the revisionist changes to the murals lining Falls Road (in the Republican-Catholic neighbourhood) and Shankill Road (in the Loyalist-Protestant district). Earlier images with messages intent on inciting violence are gradually being replaced by more conciliatory murals stressing peace and a remembrance of lives lost.
But the nature of peace is fragile. Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in the 7.6 metre high “Peace Wall” between the two neighbourhoods. That such an offensive barrier is still necessary speaks volumes about a violent history still unresolved.