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Belfast Taxi Tour: Part 1 – Lower Shankill

Submitted by on July 23, 2010 – 2:31 pmNo Comment




George Best Mural on Sandy Row

George Best Mural on Sandy Row

There are few more fascinating cities on the planet than Belfast and because it’s just a forty minute, budget flight from Manchester, our pre-season friendly there in July was an easy opportunity for Reds to get over and find this out for themselves.

I have been a few times, either with work or on the beer for a night, but I’d never got round to doing one of the famous Black Cab tours, which take you round the bits not seen on one of the many open top bus trips that are flogged by chirpy, bright jacketed salesmen on every Belfast city centre corner. The plan was to do it this time round, but having not managed to get a pint until gone seven, Friday was a late, beery night and with Saturday starting early in the Red Devil Bar, a United-themed pub on the Falls Road, and finishing some 15 or so hours later, the odds on getting to do it on the Sunday morning before flying back to Manchester were remote. Despite this and by some miracle five of us did make it out early enough for a two hour insight into Belfast’s dark past, uneasy present and uncertain future.

Red Devil Bar on the Falls Road

The Lower Shankill

The tour took us straight from our city centre hotel to the Shankill Road, the West Belfast heartland of the Ulster Loyalist movement. On approaching the Lower Shankill on the outskirts of the city centre our driver pointed out that prior to the 1994 ceasefire it would have been impossible to drive into most areas of Belfast without being stopped by paramilitaries, who would want to know who you were and what you were doing in their patch. Over a decade on and the Shankill is a busy arterial route through West Belfast. Flags aside, we could have been on Rochdale Road.

We pull up at a pub a couple of hundred yards up the Shankill. The name of it escapes me but its most famous patron was familiar to the five of us. Until being expelled from Northern Ireland by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and their cover group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), in 2002, Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair, the driver tells us, ran his empire from here. Adair, now exiled on the mainland UK and unable to return to Northern Ireland for fear of assassination by his former allies, was commander of the UFF’s notorious “C Company”, which is alleged to have been responsible for over 40 murders since their rise to power an prominence during the 1990s. It is said that “C Company” waged an indiscriminate war on the Roman Catholic community in Belfast, from which no-one on that side of the sectarian divide was immune.

From the way the driver refers to Adair and his alleged activities it is fair to assume he doesn’t hold the infamous paramilitary figure in high regard. It wasn’t just the Catholic people of Belfast that feared Adair and his mob, who it is alleged were responsible for the intimidation and eviction  of over 200 families from the Lower Shankill for their refusal to comply with “C Company’s” rule of law on the estate. Our driver tells us that the families had to be put up in some of Belfast’s top hotels, including the famous Europa, whilst alternative housing was found. They ended up elsewhere on the Shankill or in other parts of Belfast, unable to return to their former homes for fear of being killed.

On the opposite corner plywood boards have been erected where it looks like another building once stood. On it someone has sprayed “we need social housing not yuppy flats”. There are plans in place to flatten the Lower Shankill and build new houses. It’s a huge understatement to say that this work is much needed because it has to be one of the grimmest, most uninspiring housing estates in what governments like to refer to as the “developed world”. It is certainly not difficult to understand why young people, mainly men, would be attracted to running about with the paramilitaries, groups which bring with them some warped sense of belonging and worth in areas which otherwise offer little hope or encouragement. A couple of minutes in and I’m starting to feel like I’m on a field trip with a social think tank from the European Parliament.

We turn right off the Lower Shankill Road onto North Boundary Street, where on our right, on a wall of a building slightly set back from the road, is small stone plaque. It’s an odd tribute amongst the huge  murals that fill the gable ends throughout the Shankill estate. It has a Rangers badge on it and it reads “Aye Ready In loving memory of Thomas (Tom. J) Johnston. Died 11th November 2002. Will always be loved and remembered by his family and friends”.

A few yards up the road we stop again and the driver points out a row of small post-war terraces which, he says, is where paramilitaries ran two brothels and dealt drugs. He describes to us how punters would approach gangsters on the street’s corner, pay for their drugs or other services and then they’d be directed to the relevant house, depending of course on what they’d bought. The street is absolutely deserted. The only thing on two legs that we see whilst making our way up Denmark Street towards Crumlin Road is a six foot gorilla, which has pride of place in someone’s front garden. It’s wearing a bowler hat and a sash.

We’re heading North now, across the Lower Shankill estate towards Crumlin Road, site of the old courthouse and infamous Crumlin Road Gaol, or ‘The Crum’ as it was known until its closure in 1996. Before we reach it our driver points out a huge, scruffy-looking church on our right. It’s maybe ten minutes walk from the centre of Belfast, a bit like the one in Hulme on the way up to Old Trafford, but such was the extent of the violence in the height of The Troubles, no one wanted it and it sold to an artist for a pound. I’m not sure there’s another street on Earth where you can see a gorilla in a sash and buy a church for a pound. Welcome to Belfast.

Turning left up Crumlin Road the driver shows us one of the many CCTV posts that have sprung up all over the city. They provide a 360 degree view and are positioned out of range of paint bombs and most missiles. They’re vital to a police understanding of whether trouble is escalating on the streets below. They’re hardly welcome on the streets of Belfast so to a PSNI copper these enormous silver eyes in the sky are, even at £150,000 a go, like a best friend. We head West up Crumlin Road, past the old Courthouse, which has been smashed up by the locals since the court moved to the city centre in 1996. We pull up outside and the driver tells us about “terrible, workhouse” conditions over the road in the prison, which was connected to the Courthouse via an underground tunnel.

The Crum is where Bobby Sands, the most famous of the 1981 IRA hunger strikers, spent 15 days naked in solitary confinement before being moved to the H Blocks at HMP Long Kesh, where a couple of years later on May 5th 1981, after sixty five days on hunger strike, he died, a martyr for the Republican cause. Later in the trip our driver suggested that some people still believe the IRA wanted Sands and the other volunteers to die when they in fact could have been spared by Thatcher’s willingness to talk. “Some” he said “say they could have stopped it but they thought they’d get more publicity if they died”. Again, I’ve no idea how true this is but it was fascinating to hear.

We’re back on the Lower Shankill estate and pull up at a mural commemorating a UDA man who, it says, was killed by UVF. It reads “In proud memory of Lt. Jackie Coulter, murdered by the UVF. 1954 – 2000”. Coulter was shot dead on Crumlin Road in 2000 at the start of the Loyalist feud. We do a quick lap of the Lower Shankill, passing other murals depicting the H Blocks, the UDA and UFF and a bloke called William on a horse who, our driver tells us, is the reason there’s the remnants of an enormous fire on one of the small fields which separate some of the blocks of houses. Looking at the huge pile of charred, twisted metal springs there isn’t a mattress or settee left in West Belfast, which is odd because it’s about 12 o’clock and everyone seems to be in bed – there’s still no one on the streets. Maybe they were at church.

Jackie Coulter - "Murdered by the UVF"

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