On my Paddywagon tour of all Ireland we visited Belfast and one of the optional activities there was a Black Taxi Tour to see the political murals and the peace walls that separate the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods to minimise violence. Before I went to there everyone told me I must do the black taxi tour, and they were right…it is well worth doing.
Growing up in Manchester I always heard a lot on the news about the troubles here, and in fact my own city was bombed in 1996. But this black taxi tour was a real eye-opener and I had no idea how segregated everything still is.
After we arrived in our Belfast hostel, our Paddywagon tour group was split into different black taxis. They may call it a black taxi tour, but my taxi was probably the most colourful black cab in existence!
The fleet of taxis parked up in a car park on the Protestant side, where one of the taxi drivers told us about the stories behind some of the murals here.
The creepiest of the murals was this one, with the U.F.F member pointing a gun. That gun follows you everywhere you go.
The mural below says “Nothing about us without us is for us” which sounds a bit confusing and I had to actually look it up, but what it means is “no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members the group(s) affected by that policy”. The mural is made up of faces and photographs from people in the Shankhill area. If you look to the left of the photo you’ll see a group of children looking over the wall, who all wanted to have their photo taken and started running around in front of the mural. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up here seeing these murals every day.
After this we were taken to the biggest Peace Wall in Belfast which runs along Coupar Way, separating the Protestant area of Shankill Road from the Catholic Falls Road area. We were given a marker pen to write our own message on the wall. People tend to throw things over this wall and whilst we were listening to the taxi driver tell us about the Shankill Butchers, something did fly over the wall! Our taxi driver told us they always stick close to the wall to avoid any flying objects.
We were also taken to see the gates which are open during daylight hours, but close at night.
On the other side of the Peace Walls we visited some housing that literally backs right up to the wall. They actually have to have cages built on their back gardens to protect them from anything thrown over.
On the Catholic side we visited various murals and learnt about the stories behind them. The mural below is of Bobby Sands, who was an IRA member who was elected into British Parliament whilst he was in prison. He died on on hunger strike in Maze prison, protesting about the removal of Special Category Status. Special Category Status originally gave anyone convicted of troubles-related offences the privileges of prisoner of war status instead of being treated as a criminal.
On both sides of the peace lines, the people living in these areas believe that the walls are there to protect them. Children still go to separate Catholic and Protestant schools, not mixing with children from the other side. Will the walls ever come down? Who knows.
At the end of our tour, our taxi driver asked us whether we thought he was Catholic or Protestant. His answer…”It doesn’t matter.”