Northern Ireland – Revisited
By Diana Ellis
My first visit to Northern Ireland was in 1994, during the
“troubles”. I flew from Heathrow to Belfast and the security at the airport was
unbelievable. They would not take my luggage when I checked in with the airline.
I had to carry my suitcase with me to the boarding lounge. When I boarded the
plane they took my boarding pass and suitcase. Then I was scanned by a hand wand
and patted down. Only after I passed all this additional security was I allowed
on the plane. When I arrived in Belfast I was wanded and searched yet again.
All the stores in downtown Belfast had security guards
wearing bullet proof vests. Kevlar was THE fashion accessory at the time. When
you entered a shop or business the security guard would look in your handbag and
any other bags you might be carrying and then asked to open your coat/jacket.
People were randomly searched, or maybe not so randomly, it was hard to tell.
“You get used to it” my Irish friend May told me. To her it
was just a mild inconvenience when she went shopping, to me it was almost an
invasion of my privacy. May and her friends were protestants, back then it
mattered what your religious alliances were.
When I returned to London my plane circled Heathrow for
nearly two hours. The IRA was mortar bombing the airport and no planes were
allowed to land. The next day my flight back to Canada via Gatewick airport was
cancelled, the IRA was mortar bombing there that day.
I returned to Northern Ireland this spring (2007) and the
difference is amazing. There are still security guards in all the shops but they
no longer wear bullet proof vests and they search people when they leave the
store, looking for shoplifters not bombers.
We stayed in the Europa Hotel in downtown Belfast. The
Europa Hotel has the reputation of being the most bombed hotel in the world. If
the IRA ran out of targets or they needed practice, they would bomb the Europa.
The doorman told me there had not been a bombing there for a while. The troubles
are officially over. The Europa has been redecorated, and no longer needs double
The tourists have started to come back to Northern Ireland.
Not as prosperous economically as the south, Northern Irelanders are starting to
promote there country by giving tourists what they want – stories about the
“troubles”. The city tour we took of Belfast included stops at Sandy Row, the
famous Loyalist/protestant stronghold. The tour guide told us stories about the
times during the “troubles” describing what it was like to live in Belfast
The drive up the Antrim coast was just as I remembered it
from my previous visit. It was cold, wet, windy and ruggedly beautiful. I had
lost touch with my Northern Irish friends years ago but I found myself wishing I
could ask them how life is now compared to then. We
stopped at the Giants Causeway, along with several tour buses.
There were no bus
tours to Northern Ireland in 1994, now all the tour companies are offering if
not a full tour at least a few days in the North. At the Giants Causeway the
skies were clear and dry, unlike my previous visit where it was raining so hard
that we couldn’t get out of the car. Not that we would have seen anything then
anyway, the fog was way too thick. This time I was able to walk down to the
causeway and crawl among the rocks admiring the geology and the scenic Irish coast.
next stop was Londonderry/Derry or “slash city” as the locals refer to it. In an
effort to be politically correct the city bears both its protestant and catholic
names, hence “slash city”.
Our tour guide, Caroline, told us “during the troubles if
you wanted to meet men, you had to get dressed up on Saturday night and go down
to the riots. That’s were all the blokes were. Of course we all ended up with
ugly men because they all wore ski masks.”
of the tour of Londonderry/Derry centers on the trouble spots. What was once a
war zone is now a tourist attraction. Caroline tells us that the business who
did double glazing are all longing for the good old days when they had more
windows to replace then they could handle due to the constant bombing. They used
to be the richest and busiest people in Slash City.
Northern Ireland is definitely recovering from the years of
internal conflict. Capitalizing on their history as only the Irish can, they are
trying to duplicate the economic success the south has had with tourism. They
have opened their doors and put away their weapons and are adjusting to peace by
keeping a positive attitude about the future of their country.