“WE’RE like dogs. We like to mark our territory,” said Patrick as he weaved through the Belfast traffic. Patrick is one of the city’s famous Black Taxi Tour drivers. We were on a guided tour of The Falls and Shankill neighbourhoods of Belfast, areas that were deeply affected by violence during the darkest period in Northern Ireland’s modern history that the locals call The Troubles.
Patrick’s descriptions of Belfast emerged as a series of punchy, quotable quotes. “Belfast is a patchwork of neighbourhoods of both types,” he said. He was referring to the communally segregated neighbourhoods that began in Belfast the late 1960s when hostilities started between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and various Ulster loyalist armed groups that supported the majoritarian Protestant community. Over time, segregation by class and religion became a feature of urban planning. Even in 2017, up to 90 per cent of social housing was segregated. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive launched a Shared Futures Housing Project to encourage desegregated neighbourhoods. Yet, travelling through Northern Ireland, I realised quickly that neighbourhoods, towns, and even villages had ossified communal loyalties.
Patrick was now running through the history of his city prior to The Troubles. “Belfast used to be mixed. Then the minority of each neighbourhood was burned out,” he said. We were now at the murals that depict Belfast’s violent history. These are public art but serve the bigger purpose of presenting the people’s version of a city’s history. A mixed-media mural on Bombay Street in Belfast depicts the 1969 Bombay Street Fire where Catholic homes were burned by loyalist paramilitaries.
Another mural memorialises Bobby Sands, the 27-year-old IRA man who was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1981 while still in prison and on hunger strike against the removal of Special Category Status for Northern Ireland prisoners incarcerated for their deeds during The Troubles. Less than a month after his election, Sands died, on Day 66 of his hunger strike. The murals freeze-frame community trauma or community glory and have become affirmations of identity politics on both sides of the divide.
At the Bombay Street mural and memorial where we had stopped for a few minutes, Patrick showed us a rubber bullet. He explained how it had been used by British forces for crowd control during The Troubles. As we made our way to the next murals, Patrick began a story about the time the IRA stole a horse. “Horse was a bit of a diva,” he said, “so they shot it.”
This story intrigued me enough that I later ran a quick search. Shergar was a beautiful thoroughbred that belonged to Aga Khan IV, and in 1981, after successful derby performances, the equine celebrity was retired to a stud farm in County Kildare. In 1983, a gang stole Shergar and demanded a ransom. Four days later, the gang broke off contact and was never heard of again. It was widely rumoured that the IRA was involved. The rumour got new wind in 1999 when an informant suggested that Shergar was taken by the IRA and shot dead after an injury. The IRA has never officially admitted any role in the incident.
One of the final stops on the Black Taxi Tour is the peace line between The Falls and Shankill. Think of the peace line as a set of walls between Catholic-dominated and Protestant-dominated neighbourhoods. The walls sometimes have gates for passage that are closed at night and opened in the mornings. The walls started out as a type of urban defensive architecture that reified identity-based divisions into geographical divisions. The Belfast Interface Project identified 97 barriers in a report published in 2017. In 2019, the Northern Ireland Executive began a project to remove all barriers by 2023. The walls are filled with peace graffiti left by tourists. None of the pleas scribbled on the peace wall has softened the presence of the walls or obfuscated the reason why they exist. Their towering six-metre presence stands as a physical, immovable witness to the violence caused by immovable mindsets.
Vasundhara Sirnate is a journalist and political scientist. She is also the creator of the India Violence Archive, a citizen’s data initiative that records collective violence in India.