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Tourists Can Now Experience Northern Ireland's Violent Political History


In Northern Ireland, they call it The Troubles. This was the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants that spanned several decades. Recently, it's become something of a tourist attraction. NPR's Frank Langfitt visited Belfast and joined one of the newest and most controversial public tours there. It is guided by former gunmen.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Peader Whelan isn't your typical tour guide because he's a part of the story.

PEADER WHELAN: I was arrested in 1977. I was coming out of an arms dump and I ended up being charged with possession of explosives. And I was then charged with attempting to kill an RUC man, a policeman. And I was given a life sentence of which I served 16 years.

LANGFITT: Whelan was a member of the Irish Republican Army, which fought a guerrilla war against British rule for decades in hopes of uniting the island of Ireland. Whelan begins his tour at an abandoned school in a Catholic pro-IRA neighborhood.

WHELAN: You'll also see if you look at the walls of the school a lot of holes. Well, they would have been bullet holes from the gun battles. Actually, the British parachute regiment shot a teacher dead on the steps of the school in 1972.

LANGFITT: After the death of more than 3,600 people, the conflict ended with the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998. But divisions remain. Across the street stands a brick wall covered in political murals. It's part of the so-called peace wall, which began going up here in 1969 to separate the Catholic and Protestant communities.

WHELAN: It becomes a solid edifice that stretches for something like 2.5 miles.

LANGFITT: It's been almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. Why is the wall still up?

WHELAN: There was a survey done by academics a couple of years ago. And something like 67 percent of the people surveyed on either side of the wall said that they wanted the wall to remain because it gives them protection.

LANGFITT: Some people criticize these tours by former combatants. Family members of victims say they profit from misery and death. Peader Whelan disagrees.

WHELAN: People talk about these tours in negative terms. I've heard people using the word evil. I don't think anybody has heard me saying anything that would be dark or would be evil. So the tours for us are about telling our story.

LANGFITT: It's been raining all afternoon. Whelan now hands our group over to Noel Large, a former Protestant gunman who's carrying a big umbrella. Enemies for decades, the men are now friendly. Whelan has endured today's downpour with just a wool cap. He makes a joke about what divides Irish republicans like him and pro-British unionists like Large.

WHELAN: Well, you see, we really, really, really love the rain (laughter), whereas they love the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It's just a different rain (laughter). Noel, I'll see you later on then.

LANGFITT: Large now takes us on the pro-British, loyalist side of the wall. Stops will include a fish shop where nine civilians died in an IRA bombing. As a teen, Large joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group, to prevent the IRA from wresting Northern Ireland from British control. He participated in murders, bank robberies and spent 16 years in prison. Today, Noel Large is more reflective about the conference.

NOEL LARGE: Five years into a life sentence, I began to mature. And I began to see things from more than one perspective. And I began to question the balance.

LANGFITT: Large saw that Protestant and Catholic communities were both struggling financially. He concluded the ruling Protestant officials were actually pitting each side against the other to maintain the status quo.

LARGE: That was the old divide and conquer. It should have been a class struggle between the have nots against the haves.

LANGFITT: Large takes the group to a mural of five Protestant gunmen who were killed in action. There's a primary school up the road. Parents say it's time to paint over images like this and move on. But Noel Large thinks it's too early to paper over the past.

LARGE: Now, if you had painted over that all together, the families of those five young men could come and say, so what? Is their sacrifice forgotten about now? So it needs to be a process.

LANGFITT: And, Large ads, if you painted over all the murals, what would you show all the tourists? Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Belfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.