Inside Crumlin Road courthouse ruins: Why jury still out on the future of building
Startling photographs of the building which once held some of the most infamous trials of the Troubles show it is a virtual ruin, throwing doubts over plans to develop it as a luxury hotel
The hundreds of terror suspects who refused to recognise the court at the start of their trials in Belfast during the Troubles literally wouldn't recognise the court if they found themselves back on the Crumlin Road today.
For the 19th century courthouse, which was the venue for the most famous - and infamous - cases of the conflict is now virtually unrecognisable to anyone.
Crumbling Road, they're calling it. And not without justification.
What was once an architectural treasure in Belfast as well as an important historical landmark is now nothing more than a sorry shambles of twisted debris, partially collapsed ceilings and floors, glassless windows, a missing roof and fading memories.
In recent times a series of deliberate fires has left the formerly magnificent - and still listed - building in a depressing and derelict state with architectural experts questioning whether or not it can ever be saved and transformed into a luxury hotel, as envisaged by a Liverpool firm of developers.
And a Co Down woman who takes pictures of abandoned buildings in Ireland has documented the extent of the dilapidation in a series of chilling photographs.
The Abandoned NI archivist, who prefers to be known only by her Christian name Rebecca, took the photos just before the latest blaze, which was tackled by 30 firefighters who battled to stop smoke reaching Crumlin Road Gaol across the road via an underground tunnel.
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For Rebecca there really was silence in court, an eerie silence during her hour-long visit.
And what she captured on camera will come as a shock to barristers, judges, prisoners and journalists who knew the courthouse well, in some cases too well.
Rebecca says she'd been waiting for years to get the opportunity to photograph inside the building, which closed for legal business in June 1998.
But she didn't think gaining access would be so simple through easily-opened front gates and missing doors.
Rumours of ghosts - including one of a headless lawyer - haunting the building didn't put her off.
But she said the extent of the dereliction and the tangled jungle of weeds and bushes outside took her by surprise.
Even though so much of the courthouse is in ruins after all the fires, she said: "There are still traces of how grand and elaborate the building once was. I was just disappointed that I hadn't been able to see all that before someone destroyed it. It's now just the bones of what it used to be, a shell of its former glory."
Rebecca's imagination ran wild as she carefully picked her way through the deserted courthouse, taking her photographs and trying to picture in her mind's eye the dramatic headline-grabbing trials that took place there.
A number of small courts and side-rooms posed too many risks for her to venture inside. "Some of the floors had collapsed," she says. "And I couldn't see into parts of the building."
But Rebecca was able to pick her steps carefully downstairs to the underground cells where a few of the bars and locks that kept prisoners in have beaten the ravages of time and the vandals who were able to get into the building.
Rebecca says she found the tunnel which linked the courthouse to Crumlin Road Gaol, which is now a major tourist attraction, particularly atmospheric, adding: "The walk along the tunnel would have been what many prisoners would have taken to start their sentence or to receive the death penalty by hanging sometime after they were sentenced."
For a seasoned journalist who covered the trials of all shades of terrorist prisoners, looking at the Abandoned NI pictures of the courthouse is an absorbing, if not a little disturbing, journey through the past.
Most telling are Rebecca's pictures from the main court, which is almost a travesty of architectural justice. Almost everything that marked the court out has gone, even the judges' imposing chair - the centrepiece of the room.
At times the threats against members of the judiciary were so great that they wore flak jackets under their robes and armed police sat close by, with guns at the ready and with their eyes trained on the public gallery and the dock.
Where the ornate royal coat of arms once adorned a wall behind the judges, a graffiti artist has painted a clenched fist with the words 'No Justice' beside it.
Outside the neo-Classical building a justice figure still dominates the Corinthian portico, but the scales of justice are missing.
Back in the main courtroom sit the last decaying remnants of the Press benches where generations of journalists carved their names as well as recording their notes of trials which were often soporific, especially after a couple of lunchtime libations in a pub behind the courthouse.
Perusing the pictures, however, it's hard not to let the mind wander back to the more enthralling cases at the Belfast City Commission and its successor, Belfast Crown Court.
I can still see dozens of loyalists and republicans standing - in different trials, of course - in docks that had had to be specially extended to accommodate their numbers as upwards of 25 supergrasses like Joe Bennett, William 'Budgie' Allen, Christopher Black and Harry Kirkpatrick took their turns in the witness box.
The supergrasses were surrounded by burly RUC minders as they testified against their erstwhile paramilitary associates, who usually encouraged the informer's relatives to plead with them to stop giving their evidence.
The atmosphere invariably crackled with tension and fist fights were two a penny between prisoners and police officers who, it has to be said, sometimes looked as if they were enjoying the chance to exact revenge on terrorists who would have killed them in an instant in the world outside.
I also sat on the Press benches in the courtroom in October 1973 for the first Diplock non-jury court where UDA killer Albert 'Ginger' Baker pleaded guilty to four murders and was sentenced to 25 years, though he was spirited away to England before returning to give evidence against his ex-comrades.
Across the once ornate foyer in the second biggest courtroom, I can still feel the sense of unease from decades ago that unnerved me as I saw the frightening figure of convicted UVF killer Gusty Spence for the first time as he was charged with escaping from lawful custody.
And many years later in 1996 from the same dock, fellow loyalist murderer Billy Wright kept up a running conversation with me before he was ordered out of court by a judge, who jailed him for eight years for threatening to kill a woman.
A year later Wright was dead, murdered by republican inmates in the Maze.
Up what are now dangerous stairs, Rebecca snapped photographs in smaller courts that weren't short of major dramas too.
I will never forget reporting on Lord Justice Gibson's acquittal of three policemen in a shoot-to-kill case, commending them instead for their "courage and determination in bringing three IRA men to justice, in this case to the final court of justice".
Journalists scurried back to the Press room downstairs, not to play cards, as was their wont on occasions, but rather to compare notes to make sure the judge had said what we thought he'd said.
It sounded like remarkably incendiary language, and several years later the IRA killed the judge and his wife in a massive explosion on the border.
In another court I witnessed the spine-chilling spectre of three UDA men turning as one in the direction of former MP Bernadette McAliskey, whom they'd tried to kill, and giving her a clenched fist salute.
As for the future of the courthouse, the jury is still out on plans by the Liverpool-based Signature Living Group to turn it into a £10m hotel.
Their plans to open the George Best Hotel in the centre of Belfast have been bedevilled with problems and delays.
Rebecca's photographs have underlined just how mammoth a task it would be to transform Crumlin Road courthouse.
Planning approval has been received but Lawrence Kenwright's group had said they hoped to open the 77-bedroom hotel by the summer of 2019 and that deadline has now passed. Belfast City Council have expressed concern about the "vulnerability" of the building and the security of the site.
Since the last fire security has been stepped up around the courthouse with new padlocks on the front gate and hardboard topped with barbed wire blocking the entrance.
Shankill DUP councillor Brian Kingston says he and his party colleagues are "deeply concerned" by the continuing deterioration of the courthouse.
The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society are also worried. And they've expressed doubts about the hotel plans.
They said: "Planning approval does exist for a hotel on the site, a use which seems even more remote given recent events, but finding an answer to that particular question is more urgent than before."