Say the word Belfast, and images come instantly to mind: pictures of weapons, men in black hoods, hunger strikers, terror.
Belfast is eager to put those images behind it, and it may be on the cusp of just that. Because today the people of Northern Ireland have peace in their sights. Within days of September 11th, a faction of the Irish Republican Army -- or IRA -- agreed to decommission its arms. The move was the only bright spot in the otherwise dark world news, and the first promising sign since the 1994 ceasefire of an end to the sectarian war -- a war of terrorism pitting Catholic against Protestant, Republican against Loyalist, neighbor against neighbor.
In a world suddenly rocked by terrorism, Belfast offers its own hard-won lessons to travelers willing to listen and look. Diane Richard reports.
I'm in Belfast's majestic Crown Bar, sipping down a pint of Harp in my own private snug. A snug is a booth surrounded by high wood walls and a door. Inside, it feels like the perfect place to hatch a plan or start an affair. But listening to the sounds of the bar and inhaling the smoke, you realize that this is a public place - a pub - and the walls let in as much as they keep out.
I've come to Belfast, ground zero of Northern Ireland's Troubles, to learn about walls - what walls protect and what they divide.
[car sounds: wheels squeaking, acceleration]
My guide to The Troubles is Freddy. Freddy is a driver for Black Taxi Tours, a Charon of sorts who ferries me into Britain's holy hell. Our destination is West Belfast, the site of so many murders and maimings by Ulster Unionists, primarily Protestants loyal to the Union Jack. And by Irish Republicans, mainly Catholics, fighting for a republic free from British rule.
Freddy: The main reason to come here is to see the wall murals. The brightly colored paintings stretch two stories high across entire building faces, and they document military might and political martyrdom.
In the Catholic neighborhood of Falls Road, murals dating back to the '60s honor civilians killed with rubber bullets, and hunger strikers who fasted and died for prison reform. Freddy stops in front of one mural with a face I already know.
Freddy: This here is of the hunger strikers. It's all the hunger strikers who died from 1981 on. Bobby Sands is the most famous one - he's top left.
In the Protestant stronghold of Shankill Road, the wall murals show more bravado. Here, portraits of men in black masks and holding guns loom anonymous and menacing. But there are familiar faces too. Princess Diana, for instance, elegant in her tiara, looks out of place in this gritty, cheerless neighborhood.
These walls tell stories (patently partisan ones, to be sure.) And locals seem to tolerate tourists who come to see them. Still, Freddy's cautious not to stop too long at any one spot.
Freddy: Both sides like you to see the murals and see their point of view.
Sometimes, the walls of Northern Ireland have served darker purposes too.
Before I arrived in Belfast, I spent a couple days in the ancient city of Derry - Londonderry to Unionists. Derry is the site of Bloody Sunday, where in 1972 British soldiers stood on the city walls and gunned down 13 Catholic marchers. A monument stands at the site, but walls tell that story best. Wall murals as big as billboards pay tribute to the dead. Nearby, a wall in a Catholic housing complex is still pitted with bullet holes.
In Belfast, an ugly slab of industrial metal called the "Peace Wall" cleaves the two warring sides. Cleaves them together and cleaves them apart. Standing about 20 feet high, it has doors that are locked at night to keep troublemakers on their own sides. However, it's not high enough to stop the petrol bombs and sniper fire that cascade almost nightly over the top.
Freddy: See that higher fence here? They used to start throwing petrol bombs over the fence, both sides. ... [glass sounds] See the scorched part over there? What kind of bomb did you say? Petrol bomb. You've seen them, I'm sure. No, thankfully not. They get a normal milk bottle and they fill it half to three quarters with petrol, ... once it hits it, boom, it explodes. That's both sides that be throwing it. They sometimes in the past got a set of step ladders to go up and they'd shoot at each other, in the past.
So what you're saying that despite the Peace Wall, there is no peace and no wall is going to deter... There is a certain amount of peace. There's no army on the streets no more. There is a fair amount of peace. But what I'm saying is there is still things going on that aren't basically reported or broadcast on the news.
After an hour, Freddy dropped me off at my hotel. I paid him about 15 bucks for the tour, and he told me the names of a couple places to hear "fiddledeedee," or Irish music. Then he looked at me seriously. He said he'd give the peace process another five years to take hold. Then he shrugged.
Freddy: I hope there'll be peace in Ireland. But I'm very skeptical about it, very skeptical about it. About peace? Yah, yah. I lost a friend in it. That's all I'll say about that.
In the morning, I woke up to bad news.
Now also in Belfast last night a teenager was killed by a pipe bomb. The young man who died was the author of his own destruction. Senior police officers said this morning
So here I sit within the walls of my snug at the pub, shielded from others' eyes, but united by air and sound. And my tour of West Belfast has left me thinking about our own war on terrorism. I'm thinking that the walls we are constructing for ourselves, symbolic or real, offer no guarantees. They can be surmounted. They can be penetrated. And they can be painted to honor the dead.
Only diplomacy offers a hope for lasting peace.
In Belfast, I'm Diane Richard for the Savvy Traveler.