Thursday, May 3, 2018

Ireland - part three

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is passed so quickly, I miss it. This time next year, in the worst of cases, I might have to present a passport. Brexit is so important in its potential consequences that I hope later in my trip to walk across the border and include that in a post. 

For now, I take a back road north, which means a short ferry ride.

In Belfast, I’m at the Europa Hotel. Its pretentious lower facade is much different than when I first stayed here in the 1970s.

In fact, everything is much different. For one, the hotel’s not under what, at times, seemed to be constant attack. 

Then, we, we being the press, used to gather in a much more spartan second floor bar …

… looking out onto Great Victoria Street and waiting for something to happen. Which very nearly always did.

The Europa must be one of the few hotels to so candidly admit to a difficult past. 

Indeed, hotel display cases suggest a pride in resilience.

On the lobby’s main stairway a timeline provides a potted history, culminating in the hotel closing after a massive bomb in 1993. It reopened in time to host President Clinton in 1995.

I was always grateful when my room was at the back. It somehow seemed safer. 

A short stroll from the Europa is Belfast’s city hall, begun when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the city booming - and not with bombs. 

The building was a bastion of Protestant, Loyalist, that is loyal to Britain, rule. Catholics would not have felt comfortable here.

William the Third, who defeated a combined Irish and French army in 1690, is particularly detested by Irish nationalists. He is, in turn, much loved and celebrated by Loyalists.

Since 2012, in a sign of change, the days city hall flies the Union Jack is limited to eighteen. This, perhaps inevitably, sparked violent Loyalist protests.

It may seem astounding to those who don’t follow Irish affairs, but there are still neighbourhoods here where Catholics and Protestants are separated by high walls. To be fair, there has been much improvement in community relations and some barriers have been done away.

Still, coming across a so-called ‘Peace Wall’, it feels like a nasty black-and-white time warp … hideous, but often necessary, structures scarring, not just Belfast, but other Northern Ireland towns.

You can’t - well, I can’t - return and not be curious about where so much of recent, tragic Irish history has occurred. I’m drawn to the Falls Road - a Catholic bastion - and its Protestant counterpart, the Shankill Road, both infamous when I was last here. In some ways, I suppose they still are.

Both - this is the Falls Road - feature murals that, over the years, have become - oddly or justly, take your pick - celebrated. 

There’s still enough suspicion here that this is not the place to take closeups of people, which, otherwise, I often try to do. These locals are passing murals commemorating past IRA prisoners (far left) involved in ‘blanket protests’ (look that one up) and also hunger strikers. 

The words ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze’ come from an Irish ballad telling of the 1916 Easter Uprising.

Next to another mural of the Uprising is one saying ‘Smash Stormont’. 

Stormont, home of Northern Ireland’s parliament, seems well and truly smashed or, at least, out-of-service when I revisit.

The road leads to a building empty of parliamentarians. Power-sharing has come to a shuddering halt and the province is run by civil servants overseen by London.

Out front is Sir Edward Carson, Protestant and Loyalist leader, who, before the Great War, opposed home rule, a process that would have given more power to Catholics. Wags, cynics, on all sides suggest he’s making a rude gesture to Irish nationalists.

Having been on the Falls Road, I don’t feel the need to show you the mirror image Shankill. More murals and Union Jacks instead of the Irish flag. Instead, I’m going to something that could never have been imagined even twenty years ago and does - in a bizarre way - suggest progress.

I’m in the once notorious Crumlin Road Gaol - the ‘Crum’. In 1942, an IRA member was hanged here.

Paramilitaries from both sides were jailed in the Crum during the Troubles. In 1991, the Provisional IRA bombed the prison’s Loyalist wing, killing two.

Among IRA prisoners were Bobby Sands who, in a protest, later starved himself to death and the late Martin McGuinness who, more recently, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

A cell in this now popular tourist attraction gives an idea of conditions in the 1970s and 80s.

I have a very good lunch at ‘Cuffs’ in the gaol's basement, then check the gift shop where I can buy - I don’t - a t-shirt with black and white prisoner’s stripes.

Should I be so inclined - and I’m definitely not - I’m encouraged to have my wedding at the gaol.

I hesitate to pronounce verdict. Is this place guilty of shameless exploitation of much recent misery? Or an innocent indication that Northern Ireland - despite stumbles - has come a long way? Being an unrepentant fence sitter, I’ll leave that to you.

One thing I do know - competition from the Crumlin Road Gaol isn’t worrying Titanic Belfast.

A memorial in Belfast City Centre suggests the impact Titanic had on where it was built and from where many of the dead came. Although passingly interested, I’ve never been besotted by the Titanic. In fact, not even seen the film. However, the attraction has brought hundreds of thousands of tourists, benefiting an economy, victim of decades of strife and downturn. 

The exhibition - and for information on that you can look elsewhere - looks out onto the slipway where Titanic was launched …

… and has the latest gizmos. I reluctantly admit to quite enjoying myself. 

All sorts of souvenirs. You really do wonder in a hundred years’ time what cheerful mementos of the Troubles will be on sale.

Whatever, Titanic Belfast, the Falls and Shankill Roads, and even the ‘Crum’, have brought business. Belfast is, to a degree, bustling. Trendy coffee bars and not inexpensive cafes where I remember reasonably regular terrorist attacks. 

So, I’ll plug one restaurant, where I have an excellent meal, served by delightful staff, including a waiter who’s worked in Canada. You’ll readily spot this picture of Fish City is from Google Street View, since I forgot:

Cod & chips and salad with a good - and generous glass of - Pino Grigio, finishing with apple crumble and tea = £29 or $50 (Canadian) before tip. Fish & chip shops ain’t what they used to be, but Fish City is well worth it.

Twenty years after the political agreement that largely ended the violence, I have dined well. I walk to the hotel along busy streets without wondering if there’ll be an incident along the way. 

In the 1970s, reporting here meant seeing much that one really should not have to see. But I did not live here, I merely observed. I’d prefer to end this post on hopeful note, but … there’s a big ‘but’. Belfast has seen what peace can bring and most living here want more of it. The ‘but’ is that Brexit means much uncertainty and there have been signs of splinter paramilitary groups reemerging.