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George Grimley
"The tourists always get a good reaction"
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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 12:42 GMT
All aboard Belfast's terror tour
The Citybus terror tour bus Seeing the sights: The bus stops by a republican mural on the Falls Road

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

"Is this the terror tour?" the man asks the bus driver.

"Sure, we're leaving in five minutes. It's 8.50, takes two and a half hours and we stop halfway for a cup of tea."

It wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. One of the most popular attractions in Belfast is a bus tour that takes you into parts of the city's troubled past - and its brutal present.

The tourbus - complete with rainbow motif painted on its side - winds through Belfast and pulls few punches, simply because the physical stamp of the Troubles is on every street corner.

The name "terror tour" is Belfast humour. Citybus, the tour operators, prefers the official title, "Belfast, A Living History". But our driver and guide George Grimley says that the nickname has stuck.

City going places

Anyone coming into Belfast city centre for the first time would think that the troubles were long gone.

Murals: Communities wanted to see hsitorical context
It has a buzz comparable to Manchester, Leeds or Glasgow, and there is little sign of the security apparatus that once encirled the main shopping areas.

The magnificent Waterfront Hall, venue for the historic Ulster Unionist Council vote, is the pride of the city and there's even a temporary ice rink for the millennium.

But the tour shows you the other side of the city, the side where communities remain divided behind "peace lines" - the Berlin Wall-style structures built to keep warring communities apart.

Halfway through the tour, the bus passes the most recent addition to the peace lines, a 20ft high wall built less than a year ago to separate two housing estates.

You see the corner on the Falls Road where President Bill Clinton "bumped into" Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, one of the key moments in the peace process.

You see how easy it was for terrorists to move from one enclave to another, carry out a shooting, and return to their own back streets.

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You see the "most militarised street in Europe", a narrow terrace metres away from a fortress police station.

And then you see where people lost their lives - the scene of the horiffic Shankill bomb of 1993, bullet holes in the walls of a Catholic primary school, street names associated with death.

"We started the tour in 1994. Before then it would not have been possible," said George.

"The thing about Belfast at that time was that it would have only taken a spark to start something. There were areas where we knew that we could not ensure the safety of tourists."

But once the first trickle of tourists starting arrving in the city, Belfast's divided communities agreed that the tour was needed and they helped the bus company come up with a route that would put the Troubles in a proper historical context.

Peace dividend

Since the bus tour was launched, others have realised the tourism potential of the Troubles.

A tourist takes a picture of a republican mural Snapshots: Tourists have reported a warm welcome in communities
One West Belfast community group has produced a "Troubles map" and is promoting tourism from an office in the republican community's heartland.

Indeed, visitors who decide to wander into areas once completely off-limits have found residents offering explanations of important sights in the community's recent history.

"We knew we had to have the tour very well balanced but the reaction from the communities was very positive." said George.

"They wanted people to come into their areas and learn more about their history."

Many of those approached said that they wanted the paramilitary and community murals to be a focal point, paintings that many regard as legitimate forms of cultural expression.

Here, most of all, the political balance is kept.

Where the tour stops to see a memorial to the former loyalist commander John McMichael (complete with a fresh wreath of poppies), it then goes on to a wall dedicated to the republican hunger strikers.

But the tour has also helped the communities see things they may not have seen themselves.

"When we started we found that we had a lot of local interest," said George.

"There were areas of the city that some people had never seen.

"The tour was the only way that many people felt able to cross a peace line."

Anyone thinking that a ceasefire and regional assembly means there is no longer a war in the mind is soon disabused of the notion.

As the bus passes Belfast City Cemetery, where the loyalist terrorist Michael Stone once opened fire on a republican funeral, our driver asks the group to look for any kind of peace line dividing the graves. Everyone shakes their heads.

"That's because they built this peace line in the ground - a wall running nine feet down to be exact," said George. "Even in death some people wanted to be apart."

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See also:
30 Jul 99 |  UK
Tourists' Troubles map
29 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Slow steps into shared future
30 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Martin McGuinness's big day
26 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Tourist chiefs back peace process
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