I WONDER if, in 40 years’ time, our children will be taking holidays in Syria, Ukraine or Iraq.
I wonder because we’ve just returned from a wonderful short break in a place that was just as much a war zone and a no-go area when I was their age: Belfast.
Back then we watched Blue Peter, then the Magic Roundabout, then the news. And just as predictable as the appearance of John Noakes and Zebedee on our screens were reports of the daily atrocities on the streets of Belfast. Streets such as the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road became the most notorious in the UK.
If I had ventured into Catholic Belfast in the 1970s and revealed my English accent, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the story. But a lot can happen in 40 years.
Last weekend, we strolled along the Falls Road, taking photographs of the many political murals, like perfect tourists, but feeling 100 per cent safe. Earlier in the day we had done the same on the Protestant side.
This all came about after we had spent two fascinating hours on something called Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tour.
If you look it up on Tripadvisor, you will find the most glowing reports imaginable, with most giving the tour five stars, and many calling it “unmissable”.
One of the reasons we decided to go to Belfast and take the tour was to find out if it could really be as good as people said. Well, it was better.
As many people as you want to fit in a black cab get a personal explanation of what the Troubles were about, and how peace has now descended on Ulster. It includes the guide’s personal recollections of what it was like to live in a place that made the news every night.
We saw murals of paramilitaries aiming guns at us; huge bonfires, primed to be set alight during the Orangemen’s marching season; added our own graffiti to the Peace Wall; inspected some plastic bullets that our guide produced from his pocket; and popped into the Republican area whose firebombing in 1969 set off the Troubles, where we saw a memorial to the dead of the IRA. Like you do.
We asked questions and learned the difference between the IRA, the Provisional IRA and the Real IRA, while the complex list of Loyalist terrorist organisations – UVF, UFF, UDA and others – had a strange nostalgic ring to them. The story is far more complex than those news reports ever suggested, but it was remarkable how actually being there cleared the fog.
And Belfast’s future is clear too. If you are old enough to remember the Shankill Road and Falls Roads on the news, visiting them now is the craziest of trips you can take down Memory Lane, but Belfast is now claimed to be the safest city in the UK – and feels like it.
And as a holiday destination, it has everything: stunning scenery on its doorstep, priceless heritage (including being the birthplace of Titanic) and much more besides.
Best of all, the people of Northern Ireland are putting their differences behind them. To us, 40 years ago, they seemed intent on self-destruction, but we were left in no doubt that they are, in fact, the happiest, friendliest, nicest people in the whole of the UK. And an example to us all to hope, not hate.