I was born in the early 1960's and growing up I can remember seeing the troubles on the news and reading about them through the other media. When I heard this tour was available I decided to book myself a place on it, if only to increase my limited knowledge on the subject and to try and gain a balanced view of Irish political history. The tour is divided into two parts. It starts in the Falls Road and is conducted by a member from the Catholic Community, then half way through the tour transfers to the Shankhill Toad and is covered by a member of the protestant community.
When I arrived at the Divis flats I was met by Jack, a prominent Catholic who was a member of the political wing of the IRA for over 50 years. In total there were over 20 of us on the tour from various parts of the world as far as New Zealand and South Africa.
Jack talked about the history of the troubles and looked at them not as a religious struggle between protestants and catholics but as a colonial struggle between the Irish and the British going back hundreds of years. He said this was about Republicanism v Unionism and that he had protestant friends who were Republicans and Catholic friends who were Unionists. He was clearly knowledgeable about his subject and must have researched it thoroughly. He went historically back to Tudor times and the battles with the O'neill clan and then the plantation of protestants and presbyterians under James I in the 1600's. He talked about the siege of Derry in 1688, the rising of 1798 and Wolfe Tonne (who I never knew was a protestant), the Irish famine of the 1840's and how this was now considered a policy of genocide, the issue of Home Rule in the early 20th century and the following civil war and then the civil rights marches of the 1960's leading up to the troubles of the 1970's and onwards up to the Good Friday agreement and beyond.
Jack talked about the repression of Catholics by unionists who held all the political power, were the main employers, who controlled housing and the voting system and were prominent among the fire service and police service. He talked about how Catholics were discriminated against and could not even get proper housing for many years and how the Orange Order dominated the scene in Ireland. He never referred to this area as Northern Ireland. He also talked about how the civil rights marchers in Ireland in the 1960's were inspired by similar groups in America, South Africa, Cuba and South America and how their movements had brought about political change.
As we walked along the Falls Road and saw different memorials etc he talked about how the IRA of the late 1960's was split between provisionals and the political wing. He made no excuses for the atrocities of the provisionals but understood that peace could only be brought about by political means and the growth to Sinn Fein is leading to political change in Ireland. In my view Jack gave a very balanced talk and was fair throughout. He offered no excuses for issues of the past and accepted that there had been sectarian killings on both sides of the fence that continues to divide the communities.
His talk ended up by one of the gates of the Shankhill Road where he handed over to his colleague, Jake, who was going to look at things from a protestant perspective. Jake then took us down the Shankhill Road and his tour consisted of us visiting memorials and their meanings to the protestant community. In my view, things took a different turn from here. His knowledge of the subject and its history was poor and gave me the impression that he was just engaging in an incoherent rant against the catholic community. He seemed to want to blame everything about the troubles on the provo's, as he called the provisional wing of the IRA. He talked about the killings on Bloody Sunday as being an illegal march where a couple of guys had fired off a few shots from their guns, rather that it being the murder of 14 innocent marchers as identified by the recent Saville Enquiry.
Jake took us to the Bayardo shrine which is a memorial to five victims of sectarian violence from an IRO bomb. While this incident was a disgraceful incident anyway Jake did not put it in its proper context of how this was a tit for tat response by the IRA to the murder of members of the Miami Showband who were a well known pop band who were killed by Unionists in a total unnecessary action just a short time before. His talk gave no insight into the history of oppression to members of the catholic community for many years and he mentioned little if anything about the Good Friday agreement and its impact on the protestant community.
At the beginning of his talk, Jake said he would take questions from participants so half way through his talk I asked him for his comments about the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan by Unionist groups with alleged support from the British Security Services, and its impact on the Sunningdale Agreement. He just didn't want to answer it and deflected the question to talk about how there were reprisals on both sides of the community. Jake talked about a member of the protestant community called Lenny Murphy and how he was a committed soldier. Anyone with a detailed knowledge of the troubles knows that Mr Murphy was the leader of the Shankhill Butchers who terrorised the Catholic and protestant community with their torture and gruesome murders of innocent members of the community seemingly for nothing more that sadistic pleasure.
This emphasised my point about him being ignorant of historical issues and not putting things in their proper context. Jake even showed us a shrine stating that Corbyn and Blair were supporters of terrorists which clearly shows a biased view of history.
In summary, this is an excellent tour and a must see, but whereas the first part of the tour is fair and balanced and attempts to put matters into their historical context, the second half lets itself down by having a speaker who appears blatantly partisan, lacks basic knowledge of his subject and appears biased throughout. It will leave participants in any tour asking themselves the question about whether there will ever be peace in Ireland while such bigotry still exists.
Sorry to any readers who think that this is a rant against unionism but I am firstly not a catholic and secondly I am just trying to present matters in a fair and balanced way, which after reading previous comments I understand others have raised similar issues. I came to this tour having some knowledge of Irish history, but I learned a lot more by doing the tour. Hope this assists, but if it doesn't then others will have their own opinions. Participants will see the metal fence dividing the communities. It seems the Catholics want the wall to come down but the Unionists want it to remain. Based upon current evidence I don't think there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime.