[In which I myself try to remain impartial…]
Back in Belfast again for a bit of shenanigans on my day off I decided to take a Black Taxi Tour, since I hadn’t been on one before and there was a small group of people who wanted to go. Thus four of us, two guys and two girls, piled on into a taxi we picked up at City Hall. It wasn’t long before I realised that this is the sort of tour where your experience will be affected by who is driving you around. Ours was a very methodically, almost solemnly spoken middle aged man whose affiliations we, of course, didn’t ask, but managed to guess based on where we were being taken and how long we spent there.
Chances are, your driver will be on one side or the other since very few people from Belfast live (or are) neutrally. I don’t mean they are extremist or anything like that. I am talking about the physical barriers that the people of Belfast live in every day. The city is designed to keep the two factions separate, forcing everyone through the neutral inner city at night.
It is said that in Belfast city one does not discuss these three topics: politics, religion or football. As much as that might should like a joke, even referring to someone as Irish my be taken offensively if you’ve found you way unwittingly in the company of people who identify themselves differently. That hasn’t actually happened to be, but as I was warned I am warning you.
Anyway, as much as they might try to be impartial you’re going to be getting a polarised point of view. Such is the nature of a tour given by a person who grew up in violence, is still living with a bit of it, and whose family have existed in violence and uncertainty for generations.
Things are moving forward in Northern Ireland these days. In my opinion there are definitely advances to how things used to be. For example, with loyalist drivers only driving through loyalist estates and vice versa for nationalists, so you would take two cabs for a tour. For the sake of getting the big picture, that sounds like an interesting option, but it’s a bit tactless to be going up to people and asking them their affiliation! In the end, their progress is not to be snuffed at and now most black taxi experiences will attempt at being comprehensive and factual.
To be honest, I had expected more from a taxi tour. Especially since they come so highly recommended. More history, more context to what we were seeing lest I just be staring at glorified graffiti. Indeed, I had more history of Belfast from my Dubliner coach driver on the way up than from the €10 taxi fare.
Our driver almost seemed proud, one-eyed and was really enjoyed trying, without success, to install us with hysteria. When we pulled up in Shankill, a site of Loyalist Murals, he said to us, “Right, if kids come out and throw stones and you, they’re being friendly. Throw them back, but don’t hit them. And. If you hear me sounding the horn, run back as fast as you can.” Before bursting into laughter. Between himself and another cabby they pulled a couple of references to Belfast’s Mona Lisa, a sniper portrait which follows you around the estate, before setting us free to walk amongst them ourselves. Humour sure is Black here!
I was actually a bit offended when we arrived back at the taxi and were asked if we “felt unsafe.” “No,” I responded, because I didn’t, “more sad.” A grin swept across him as he told us how there had been a prison guard murdered there “just the other day.” Another clear gripe. I could see in his face he was out to try and shock us. I was annoyed by this stage. I wanted to tell him that I’m no stranger to death, just because my passport has a fern on it. I mean, people get murdered in South Dublin, back home in New Zealand, and pretty much everywhere I’ve visited – including uprising-torn Egypt. So no, I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t feel unsafe, but I felt sad that the driver wanted to shock us. I let it go.
Fair enough using this black, sensational history as a swift education for people who know nothing at all about the North and its history – those people who weren’t alive or slept through the nineties and earlier, perhaps. But the tour just didn’t cater to our car load of educated foreigners who can remember seeing Belfast riots on the news. The tour was just sensationalism. I know I said I wanted to be impartial and I know a lot of taxi drivers in Belfast now. Not all of them are going to give that kind of tour. All death – all conflict – sucks. Let’s just leave it there.
After leaving the Loyalist Murals, we drove around the corner and were give the chance to sign the Peace Wall, which apparently they like (in contrast to Berliners) as it makes them feel safe. I didn’t really want to, but in the end wrote:
Nothing is as distant as the recent past.
You can’t really be impartial to your own life experience, after all. I might be able to pull out screeds of academic opinions from which my understanding is based, but it will make no impact at all on someone whose father was murdered by someone else on the other side of the wall. Not saying that’s bad – that’s just life. I’m sure there are plenty of things that have happened in my life that I am far to close to form a proper opinion on.
Next was a two second stop at the Republican Murals. Surprise. Our group privately agreed while we were alone in that cab that they are more topically broad. Even so far as to say they are better art. Freedom against oppression for minority states being a big theme: Cuba and Palestine are championed as being in a similar metaphorical boat. Remembering hunger strike victims and there is a general air of the little man against the institution. The dead guard being brought up once again as we look at a mural of a guard strip searching a convict. The Loyalist Murals have a theme of history, distant history, William of Orange emblazoned as the man who began it all. There are also some very formal looking dedications to Loyalist leaders and the generally feeling is very militaristic. Both propaganda, the Loyalists were a lot less subtle about it. My Lonely Planet tells me that the murals are to be toned down and it appears that has started. The threatening ‘You Are Entering Loyalist…’ announcements having disappeared since my last visit, so I guess they’re right. I don’t know how I feel about them going. I think the people of Belfast need them, at least in the short term until they find something else to store their identity in.
As I said earlier, it’s a ‘thing to do’ that can really vary. I know and have heard of a lot of people who thoroughly hate the idea of a tour through this city; seeing the murals as shrines to terrorists – on both sides – be they guerilla soldiers or organised ones (though that’s another fine line). Belfast was once considered on of the ‘Four B’s’, places one did not visit, alongside Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia. There are definitely times to avoid, just because one doesn’t poke the sleeping bear. These are such times as July 12 – the most famous of the Orange marches in Belfast. That shouldn’t put you off though. On a regular day, in the inner city or at attractions, for a tourist life goes on as usual.
Get ready, it’s only ever going to be a ‘doom and gloom’ tour. I was there for an education, I didn’t get it. I’d have liked some more content and some sincerity for both sides, but I appreciate that’s still a bit too much to ask – for now. If you’re headed to Belfast, it’s relevant to modern history and the drivers being locals adds to one’s understanding of people in the face of conditioning, so do it. Just try not to get offended when they pat you on the head and patronise you for not having grown up in Belfast. I tried.
(Note: I have talked here of Belfast and her inhabitants in very general terms. Once again I feel like people are going to read my review – of my own person experience – and disagree with it. There are plenty of very peaceful people in Belfast. Unfortunately, you can’t deny that they are overshadowed by an overwhelming amount of people who simply are not.)