N.b. The conflict in Belfast is sensitive and complex. I just want to be clear that this account is from the side of a former Republican political prisoner. I have included research from news reports but this account may still be biased. I am not condoning any of what I write in this piece nor in agreement of anything I report. I am merely just showing my experience of a tour from the reality of a former member of the IRA. If I had been on a tour with someone from the other side the version of events would probably be a completely different story.
“You wrap two sticks of dynamite together, insert a (blank) and sellotape (blank) to the top. And there’s your bomb.”
I continued to walk calmly, hanging on to his every word.
“Did anything ever go wrong when you made a bomb?” I ask.
He turns his short, stocky frame to face me.
“Yes,” he replies, before explaining the reason why he has been manoeuvring around to my left for the last two hours.”
“I only have 40 percent hearing in my left ear.”
Surreal is not the word. I am standing on a street corner in Falls Road on a Belfast political tour. The infamous street which played an important part in ‘The Troubles', talking to a former IRA bomber about bomb making.
‘The Troubles’ began in the late 1960s and lasted for nearly three decades. More than 3,000 people were killed during this time. A fifth of them on North Belfast's streets.
In 1969 a youth movement of the IRA was created in Belfast. At the age of fourteen Robert joined this young IRA. Instead of climbing trees or playing football, he spent his teenage years making bombs out of tins of beans.
“It was like boy scouts but with guns and bombs,” he says. Four years later he was arrested at the age of eighteen.
I stay quiet as I listen to his tale.
“My bombs never hurt anyone,” he added. Ensuring that I understood he was not a murderer. “They were just meant to scare.”
And scare they did.
Growing up in England, I remember the news reports. The bar in Soho which I had visited and days later had been an IRA target. A bomb strategically placed within a bin shattering its front windows. As a Samaritan I was taught what to do if someone called us confessing that they had planted a bomb. Luckily I had not been on the receiving end of one of these calls.
As the tour continues along Falls Road, I hear his side of the story and receive a history lesson in Northern Ireland politics. I listen intensely as he tells me how the Irish fought alongside Britain in WWI to gain their independence. I learn more about the 6 occupied counties and Britain’s role in the conflict.
Robert tells me that the divide which once began as one of territory became one of religion. The Republicans (or Nationalists) who are mainly Catholic believe that there should be a united, independent Ireland, whilst the Unionists who are mainly Protestant believe that Northern Ireland should stay as part of the UK.
Robert’s grandfather who was Catholic was denied the right to vote. His family formed the Civil Right Association believing in equality of sexes, and that everyone had a right to a home and a job. According to Robert, the Protestant union government felt threatened by this. They told their people to fight against those protesting for civil rights.
It was when members of his family were killed that the struggle became personal instead of political.
“Do you bury your head in the sand or join the IRA?” he says, justifying his decision.
The place we are standing is of great significance to the conflict.
“I was eleven when Protestants set fire to 1500 houses just here,” Robert tells me. He shows me black and white photos of burnt out houses and buses. Across the road you can see the bullet holes in the wall. A plaque sits on the wall in memorial to the two people killed as police fired into the building.
According to the BBC British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland at first to protect Catholics, but soon became involved in bursts of fierce fighting with paramilitary groups.
We pass the Garden of Remembrance, a garden that he helped create to remember the Republicans who died.
“It’s a place of reflection” Robert says, before adding, “or a shrine to terrorism, if you are on the other side.” Robert’s grandfather is remembered at the garden.
As we walk around it becomes evident that Robert is well respected. He says hello to everyone and stops to chat.
In 2005 the IRA handed in all of their weapons. After decades of conflict, ninety-five percent of the members moved across to become members of Sinn Fein.
Robert is middle leadership within the party. He tells me that he wants women to step forward and takes me to the Sinn Fein office which is the office of Mary Lou McDonald, the recently elected leader of Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fien bookshop sells Republican gifts with proceeds helping the families of the 365 killed in the IRA.
We continue the tour, passing the combine mill where his mum and aunts used to work. Both Catholics and Protestants worked in the mill. Instead of being divided they would sit by the gates on their breaks and share stories.
As I spend more time with Robert, one recurring thread seems to weave through his story – the Republican women, some of whom were the forerunners of the movement.
The Armagh Women’s Prison was home to the ones who got caught. The door from the prison on display at The Republican Museum stands as a monument for all the Republican women killed within the conflict. Known as “The Supreme Sacrifice,” some were killed by police, others during bomb making, and others killed on the receiving end of bombs.
As I enter the mock-up of a prison cell, I get a chilling sense of the prison conditions standing within the narrow, bleak walls. I am transported back to 1978 where I am barely three years old, as Robert gives me a first-hand account of what prison life was like.
“We were given 3 sheets of toilet paper a day,” he recalls, adding that prisoners were frequently beaten by the prison guards outside of their cells.
In 1978, Robert took part in a ‘no-wash’ protest after disagreements with authorities over the brutality and lack of sanitation.
Prisoners removed their clothes and refused to wash, using the little toilet paper they were given to write words of their protest on instead. They smeared walls with their own excrement and refused to leave their cells. Women and men came together to protest and show unity at the prison.
A hunger strike began but believing their demands had been made, the hunger strike was called off but the prison soon attracted more media attention not long after in 1981.
On 1st March 1981, a second hunger strike began. Organised by Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA who had been sentenced for possessing firearms.
As the hunger strike took place, mothers of prisoners organised protests on the outside. Although Bobby Sands was inside prison, outside of the prison walls he was being elected as a Member of Parliament but Bobby Sands never made it to British Parliament. After sixty six days on hunger strike he died.
In total, ten of the hunger strikers died in prison. Bobby Sands passed away on 5th May 1981. history.co.uk reports that his election victory encouraged Sinn Fein to fight in further elections and just two years later Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fien, won the Westminster seat for West Belfast.
As I sign the visitors book I see a poster of Margaret Thatcher with the slogan “Wanted for murder and torture of Irish prisoners.” I ask Robert to clarify the hatred with one of our former Prime Ministers (nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady’).
“She had an opportunity to stop the hunger strike and instead let Bobby Sands die.’
A counselling centre sits outside of the museum. The centre helps former prisoners with any psychological issues and helps them to integrate back into society.
After experiencing a hunger strike and seeing the demise of prison mates, I ask Robert if anyone went crazy. He nods.
Robert served twelve of his twenty years for creating four explosions. Within the prison he continued his education and left at the age of thirty to become a political activist, helping to build a political party on the outside for former political prisoners.
We begin our walk past countless murals.
“The wall for truth,” says Robert as we stop in front of McGurk’s Bar wall. A wall paying homage to the 15 people who allegedly died when a bomb caused the building to collapse in 1971.
“We still don’t know the truth,” Robert says, explaining that the families contact him for news. It is thought that the McGurk’s Bar bombing was a cover-up and the families are still demanding the truth.
The murals seem endless. Faces of murdered civilians on plastic bullets fired by the police and the British Army, are a sombre reminder of the danger of plastic bullets, which the words on the wall claims are still being used on the street of Belfast today.
Each wall has a message. Whether it’s a memorial, seeking justice or paying tribute to innocent civilians caught up in the conflict.
Colourful drawings of women adorn the drab, grey stone. One in particular catches my eye. A group of women depicted in brown wearing long skirts and hats marching in a group. A brown-haired lady in a green military jacket faces to the right, a rifle hanging in mid air.
The Irish translates to ‘No freedom without freedom for women.' The lady in green is Countess Markievicz, a countess of aristocracy who gave it all up to join the Irish Revolution.
Standing in front of a red-bricked wall with the words ‘Stop wars not people'’ I am transported back to my visit in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to a memory of a wall which read ‘Make hummus not war.’
The wall’s message here is loud and clear. ‘Capitalism & imperialism created refugees,' with the words ‘US, NATO, and EU displayed on black rockets with people running away. ‘Syria – Iraq – Afghanistan – Libya’ are listed underneath.
Just as in Palestine, barriers here still exist. During the start of ‘The Troubles’ walls were erected to separate the Protestant from Catholic areas. In Falls Road the electronic-controlled gates to the predominately Protestant area of the Shankill Road are closed at 10pm and reopen again at 7am.
Robert works with a ‘Barriers and Mindsets’ project which gets kids to talk to each from both sides of the wall. They ask them thought-provoking questions such as what they want to see happening to the wall in the next 10 years. The children are taken to Berlin to speak to the residents there about the Berlin Wall.
With the project being funded by the EU, Robert is worried that Brexit has serious implications for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and that there will remain a divide.
Even the dead are divided here. A wall built nine feet down separates the Catholics from the Protestant graves in Milltown Cemetery. We pass the grave of Ned Treodden – leader of IRA. Only those killed in active service on behalf of the IRA are allowed to be buried here.
Robert pauses at one of the plaques where potted plants and wreaths had been laid. It reads ‘Volunteers, Terence O’Neill, Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell.'
“He taught me to speak Irish,” he says solemnly, standing there for a few moments remembering the late Bobby Sands.
We move along to an empty area. There are no gravestones, no flowers, just an empty lot.
“I’m hoping this never ever has to get used again.” He looks down at the gravel below. “If it does, we have failed.”
The walk from the cemetery to the Felon’s Club is a bitterly cold one. I huddle into my jacket and put my hood up for extra warmth.
I can’t believe that I’m heading to the Felons Club – the meeting place of the IRA. To become a member you have to be an ex-prisoner for 6 months to join. Robert opens the door to this political clubhouse beckoning me to enter before him. A signed picture from Nelson Mandela adorns the entrance wall.
“We learnt most of how to keep peace from Mandela,” says Robert, talking about his visit to South Africa to meet the ANC.
“As Mandela said, “You don’t make peace with your friend. You make peace with your enemies.”
Their success in transitioning from a military operation to a political one has attracted attention from other military groups wishing to do the same. This is the headquarters where members of the Farc (a Colombian guerilla group) regularly come as Sinn Fein advises them on their move from a military group to a political one.
But Colombia and South Africa aren’t the only influences within these four walls. You can add Cuba and the Basque region to their list of military guidance.
We sit in the clubhouse for lunch. As I sip my pint of guinness and tuck into my Irish fry, I am reminded of the most important mural on the tour. One that serves as a symbol of their evolution.
‘1916 – 2016. From Bullet to Ballot. The Evolution of Our Revolution.’
For such a long road, there is an undeniable long history to match, but as Falls Road can show, it is possible for a country to leave behind its bloody past and begin to move from conflict to peace…
Belfast Political Tour
My political tour was with Coiste Tours which I really enjoyed but they account for just one view of the conflict. Instead you can take Belfast political tours with both Republican and Loyalist ex-political prisoners for 2 different perspective on “The Troubles.”
The tours are three hours long and cover 2.5 miles. They start at Divis Tower in Falls Road. They are a unique way to get real insights into ‘The Troubles' with those who were personally affected by the conflict. You also get a chance to sign the Peace Wall at the end of your experience.
Check prices and dates: Belfast: Political Conflict 3-Hour Walking Tour
For information on where to stay in Belfast, how to get from the airport and how to get around the city, read Things To Do in Belfast
- Things To Do in Belfast
- Titanic Museum Belfast
- Solo Travel in Northern Ireland
- Expert Interview: Northern Ireland