My wife, Kath, and I have just been to Belfast and environs for a few days. It was a brilliant trip. For me, the first proper visit to the the place that my mother is from – I’ve had a few work trips to Stormont in the past. Not exactly a return to my roots – more a discovery of them. Better late than never, I guess.
There will be a couple of photo blogs – one of the city, the other of the the stunning coastline north and east of Belfast. But I want start with a story. It’s the story of modern Northern Ireland, as told by our coach driver on Sunday, as we went up to the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmill’s whiskey distillery and then back along the stunning coastal road to Belfast. He was a true raconteur, and very funny at times. He had the timing of a comedian, and an irresistible laugh. He gave an interesting potted history of Northern Ireland, going back to Celtic times. As ever, it was a sobering reminder of how much England has messed up things in the past for the people of Ireland. That’s not to say they haven’t also messed things up themselves, but the blundering, murderous, discriminatory, cruel, exploitative attitude and actions of the English over the centuries is truly shameful. And I say that as a proud Englishman.
But our driver’s exposition of the last forty years, through “The Troubles” to the peace process and on to today, when Belfast, in many ways, is booming, was the most memorable thing. Early on in his general banter, as we drove out of Belfast, he said “You need three words to understand Northern Ireland: priorities, confusion…and idiots.” The latter was reserved mostly for politicians, especially the modern day ones, who are so unable to compromise with each other that the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t been able to sit for over a year. Throughout his patter, he’d come back to one of those themes, whether it was about road traffic signs or Irish history.
Quite a lot of his stories were well-rehearsed, I’m sure. I heard versions of the same from the guide at the Giant’s Causeway, and from the man on the open top bus, on a trip round Belfast, the next day (yes, we were real tourists on this trip). But on the journey back into Belfast, he began to speak straight from the heart. He was born in 1974: a child of the Troubles. He grew up in the Falls Road area, a Catholic/Nationalist area. He spoke of how his childhood and adolescence was “scarred” by the Troubles. He will, no doubt, have memories that he didn’t share with us. But he did talk of how police helicopters flew over his home every night, shining the searchlights into their windows; how getting into Belfast city centre meant crossing through a ring of steel. How you could be searched countless times while you went in and out of shops. How kids going to school could be shot because of the colour of their blazers. How all of this was normal. Just part of daily life. And, therefore, how incredibly important the Good Friday agreement (20 years old today) was, even if it wasn’t perfect for anyone. How could it be? But it set Northern Ireland on the path of peace and prosperity. On a transformation to the vibrant city of today.
A short digression. By chance, Kath and I walked south to the Ulster Museum today (10 April). That is well worth a visit by the way, and I’ll cover it in a later blog. It’s in the Botanic Gardens, close to Queen’s University. The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement was being commemorated at Queen’s. We stopped to look – lots of dignitaries were hanging around outside one of the buildings. We spotted Gerry Adams, looking dapper. Inside were probably the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, George Mitchell, the senator who played such a crucial role in the negotiations. Or maybe they had already left. Anyway, there were plenty of people on the pavement of University Road, looking into the university, waiting for something to happen. Way less security than you would get in London these days for a similar event. I overheard a Japanese tourist asking some young women what was happening. One of them said, “They are celebrating the Good Friday agreement. It ended the Troubles and brought peace to our country.” What more do you need to know?
But back to our driver, who did tell us more. Two more stories, the first a personal experience of his. He works for a charity that takes children from different communities up to a residential centre on the north-east coast. His job is to drive them there and back. He described how, when they went up there, the Catholic kids sat at the back of the bus, the Protestants at the front. He could overhear kids saying, “I’m not going to sit with them.” And then, how, when he went to pick them up a couple of days later, they were all mixed up: friends, sitting together, sharing pictures and messages on their phones. Having discovered that they were all the same, just kids growing up in different bits of the same city. I think that is a wonderful, simple, salutary story. The hope for the future is, as always, with our youth.
The second story concerns that mega-hit series, “Game of Thrones”. Confession: I have never seen it. My son, Kieran, declares that it is the greatest TV series ever made. I do want to see it, but I will have to start at the beginning. The series is filmed in Northern Ireland. When on location, it’s on the same north-east coast that we took a trip around. We saw a few of the spots. Disused quarries seem to be a favourite. But the point is that the popularity of the programme has contributed both to a huge boost in tourism, and in the film industry in Northern Ireland. These are now two of the three biggest industries in country, according to our driver. Top is agriculture, and heavy engineering must still be up there. HBO, the makers of “Game of Thrones”, have built a huge studio in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, near the port, and you can see a cluster effect developing. These are exciting times for Belfast, and none of it could have happened without the peace process.
So, I guess our driver’s message to the local politicians is: get your priorities right, don’t sow seeds of confusion, and stop being idiots. Put the benefits of peace before your own selfish concerns.
And my message to English politicians obsessed with Brexit is: don’t f*** with the peace in Northern Ireland. It’s still a fragile thing. For once, put Ireland at the forefront of your thinking. Don’t dismiss concerns about the border; don’t regard the Good Friday agreement as a nuisance, a fly to be swatted away. You have a responsibility to safeguard the interests of all the people of the UK, not just your faction of the English. You can’t recreate the Empire. It’s gone. We are friends with our neighbours now. Keep it that way. And the most important neighbour is Ireland. Put it first. Please.