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To Your Right, Whizzing Plastic Bullets and Flying Bottles

Northern Ireland isn’t the most popular of destinations among tourists, what with all the "trouble" there. But some come exactly because of that - and "trouble tours" are only too happy to accomodate them

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The tour goes through here. The Shankill Road area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, the heart of the Protestant Loyalists.

If it weren’t for the tensions in North Ireland, he would be out of a job.

Norman Reilly is a cab driver in Belfast. But he doesn’t drive just any taxi and traverse any ordinary city route. No, Reilly drives a traditional English taxi – old fashioned and black. He works for "Black Taxi Tours" – and shows tourists a particularly seamy side of the Northern Irish capital of Belfast: the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants.

He’s been doing it for the past four and a half years, ever since the peace treaties were signed. That’s also when all the "Trouble Tours" boomed in the region, giving tourists the opportunity to travel safely through the area.

You can’t get any safer than this

The tour through the history of Northern Ireland begins in front of the elegant hotel, "Europa". The name unfortunately evokes tragic associations - the hotel has even made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most frequent target of bomb attacks in the whole of Europe.

The drive takes you past beautifully decorated shop windows, as residents wrap up their shopping.

Such leisurely shopping jaunts weren’t possible earlier, the inner city was heavily barricaded and turned into a security zone, says the young cabby. Every single person, who went into the city was thoroughly searched. On the streets, in the shops, almost everywhere.

Today uniformed security forces are hardly a part of Belfast’s city life. The city appears much like other European metropolises.

But the seeming calm is deceptive. Fights often break out on the streets in the evening in the north of Belfast. But of course you don’t travel there as a tourist. Tourists are better off and safer here, the center of town has a lot to offer, including his tour, says Norman.

The terror in the US – bad for business

The taxis belonging to the various "trouble tour" agencies, ply every single day of the year, just not during Christmas. Terror and trouble makes for good business, but the flow of tourists dipped this year – not because of bomb threats or riots in Northern Ireland. The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11 struck fear among many travellers, says Reilly.

Among his best customers are Americans and Australians. They come to Ireland in search of their Irish roots – even in the North, jokes the young taxi driver. But they’re largely ignorant of the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants.

Living according to religion

"A lot of people don’t understand. Tourists have heard about the thing between Catholics and Protestants, but when you bring them up the Shankhill and Falls Road, they tend to get the religions sometimes mixed up", says the young cabby.

"But for the tourists, it’s just a mix-up. For the people who live here, the matter can be life-threatening. At least in the neighbourhoods, which are strictly divided according to the religion", says Reilly as he turns onto the Shankhill Road, the heart of the Loyalists:

"The entire area is 100 percent Protestant. All the shops are non-Catholic, and the people, who shop here are also Protestant. Now people would say, how would you know the difference? There is no way of telling the difference between Catholics and Protestants, but it’s simply not a good thing for a Catholic to come to this area and socialise."

A childhood of stone throwing and wailing sirens

Norman Reilly has spent his whole life in Belfast. He grew up here on the Shankhill Road. His childhood was dominated by the commonplace hatred of Catholic neighbours. As the 31-year-old talks, armoured police vans zip by. A familiar sight for Norman – but cause for an adrenaline rush among the tourists in the backseat.

Ten years ago, the wailing of police sirens and bomb squads was a part of everyday life. There were at least three bomb threats every week.

Reilly narrates this like a seasoned war veteran. Stone throwing and the whizzing of plastic bullets belonged to the day’s agenda. He drives the taxi again on the Catholic side.

This is where two worlds divide, just a couple of hundred metres away from each other. An ugly grey wall runs through the middle of a residential neighbourhood:

"This is the wall that separates the Protestants from the Catholic Fall Road. This side Protestants, the other side Catholic homes. This wall was built 25 years ago because there was a lot of trouble in this particular area – Protestants and Catholics threw stones at each other because their homes were so close together. This is like a no man’s land. Some people say that this is the Berlin Wall of Belfast. People ask, will it come down? I would say it will be a long time. But no one ever thought that the Berlin wall would come down and it did."

Time for peace

If Reilly ever won a lottery, he'd emigrate to Australia, he said, laughing. Not because it’s more peaceful there, but because of the warm climate. A father of three children, he’d never go away because of the hatred. After all, he grew up with this conflict, that nobody knows how long will continue to haunt minds, despite political breakthroughs.

But when will there be a cease-fire?

It will definitely take another generation for the conflict to end, maybe even longer, estimates Reilly.

"People have had a taste of the peace and freedom and they want more of it. It’s a small minority of radicals that want to see the troubles continue."

  • Date 08.01.2002
  • Author Petra Tabeling
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1fzu
  • Date 08.01.2002
  • Author Petra Tabeling
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1fzu