‘Troubles have impacted on lots of people in lots of different ways. We need to be really sensitive in how we tell the story’
Crumlin Road Gaol’s new tourist experience is set to take visitors outside its walls for walks in loyalist and republican heartlands guided by ex-inmates
Former IRA prisoner Peadar Whelan would have loved to have walked out of Crumlin Road Gaol 40 years ago just as easily as he strolled into it yesterday. But during his 10 months on remand in the Seventies the infamous gaol was a very different and higher-security place from the rather incongruous visitor attraction it has become today, with tourists and not terrorists the order of the day.
And now ex-prisoners like Whelan are helping to unlock a new initiative to lure more visitors not just to the gaol itself, but to the Troubles spots that surround it.
In the seven years since the reopened prison doing its hard cell, so to speak, on day-trippers, the one million or so tourists have been something of a captive audience.
But now the gaol is breaking out, launching a four-and-a-half-hour Troubles tour which costs £35 a time and includes a visit to the complex, a walking tour of the Shankill and the Falls with ex-prisoners, and is rounded off with a pint of Guinness and a bowl of stew, though the word 'Irish' doesn't feature in the promotional leaflets.
Whelan is one of 10 former republican prisoners who will be guiding the visitors down the Falls under the auspices of the Coiste Na nlarchimi organisation, which looks after the care and other needs of ex-inmates.
On the other side of the peace wall, guides on the Shankill from the Epic prisoners welfare organisation - who mainly help ex-UVF inmates - will be giving the visitors a loyalist take on the Troubles.
The two organisations, who to some are still seen as strange bedfellows, have agreed on very different scripts for their guides but, typically for former proponents of violence, no one is pulling any punches - and no one, said one tour guide, is sitting on the fence.
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He said: "Our perspectives are obviously diametrically opposed to one another but most visitors by and large know what to expect from the guides on the Falls and on the Shankill.
"They know they won't be getting the gospel according to the Alliance Party."
What is literally a shared experience by the former combatants who not so long ago were trying to kill each other in west Belfast has been running for years, with the republican and loyalist guides 'swapping' their customers on Lanark Way, between the Shankill and the Springfield Road.
The police used to view the area as 'murder mile', but now the ex-prisoners call the handover point 'Checkpoint Charlie'.
The new restyled tours have come about after officials from Crumlin Road Gaol responded to requests from visitors behind the walls to find out more about the Troubles outside them as well as the history of the 'Crum' itself.
Phelim Devlin, who's the director at the gaol, said officials there noticed a gap, not in security but rather in the market.
He added: "We always tried to give national and international visitors the lowdown on the story of the 150-year-old prison.
"But more and more people were asking us to give them extra information about what had happened during more recent years, during the Troubles.
"So, we started meeting representatives from Epic and Coiste to see if they would come on board.
There are no better people to tell the stories."
At the launch inside the prison, CEO of Tourism NI John McGrillen said it was vital that the tours should take into account the feelings of people who had suffered because of the Troubles.
He added: "We have to be conscious to the fact that the Troubles have impacted on lots of people in lots of different ways and therefore we need to be really sensitive to how the story - which is an integral part of our past - is told."
Peadar, who's been a guide for 12 years, said he and his colleagues on the streets were always respectful, adding: "We see ourselves as telling the stories of our community.
"We would not see the tours as exploiting anyone."
Phelim said he was convinced the tour had struck the right balance. He added: "Unfortunately in this part of the world, one wrong word can cause a lot of trouble, so we have to be as careful to ensure that there's no upset. We hope that everyone can appreciate the risk we are taking with the tours and support them."
Not so long ago, it was no secret that tourism chiefs were trying to steer tour buses and their visitors away from Belfast's all too well-known violent past.
I asked Mr McGrillen if the backing for the new Troubles tour meant Tourism NI had come to terms with their reservations and were happier to exploit the Troubles as a way of bringing more visitors here.
He said: "I don't think the phrase 'exploiting the Troubles for tourism' is the way I would express it.
"I think we do have to recognise the fact that when people come here they do have an interest in our recent history.
"I don't think we can pretend that it didn't happen.
"We must not let this seem to be exploiting communities or individuals who have been damaged by the fact that the Troubles have taken place."
I asked him if he had any regrets that plans for a museum or peace centre at the Maze had not come to fruition after politicians pulled the plug.
He replied: "I think it's a politically difficult question.
"At the end of the day we are an arm of government and we deliver policies that have been decided upon by ministers.
"And if they decide that something is not going to progress, we have to live in that world.
"It is not for us to express a view as to whether it should or shouldn't have happened.
"It didn't happen and that's where we sit."
The Troubles tour can be upsetting for some visitors but it isn't for the faint-hearted slouches, either. It starts leisurely enough with 800 years of Irish history ambitiously explained in a half-hour talk inside the gaol before the walking starts over almost three miles up the Shankill and down the Falls, where stops include the republican garden of remembrance and the murals on the International Wall.
A lunch break back at the gaol is followed by 90 minutes touring the Crum and its exercise yards where a 'hard to deliver' helicopter and Army vehicles are on show and the roles played by the security forces including the police, Army, Prison Service and RAF are outlined.
Phelim said the visitors to the gaol down the years have included scores of former prisoners and Crum staff anxious to show their grandchildren where they served their time in custody or as custodians.
For Peadar, yesterday's trip to the gaol was hardly a nostalgic wander down memory lane.
He said going back to Long Kesh/the Maze and seeing the hospital where the hunger strikers died was "very emotional".
In the Crum he'd spent his time on remand in 'A' wing before he was transferred to the H-Blocks when he got a life term after being convicted of trying to murder a policeman.
He said: "The first republican prisoner I met in Long Kesh was Bobby Sands. He came to me with biscuits and fruit. He was on his second spell in jail and he knew how to deal with it better than I did. But it was also a bit of camaraderie to say I wasn't on my own. I was only 19 at the time."
He went on the blanket and said the hunger strikes and the deaths of his colleagues were difficult. But he said he never thought of joining the hunger strike, adding: "I wouldn't have been confident with going through with it."
At yesterday's launch it had been expected that former loyalist prisoners would be present to talk to the Press about their experiences and about their hopes for the new tour.
But officials at the Crum said they were told that the loyalists weren't able to attend.
A source from Epic said they were proud to offer tours to people from right across the world. Their part of the tour includes a visit to the Shankill memorial park where soldiers from the area who died in World Wars and subsequent conflicts are remembered along with the nine victims of the IRA's Shankill bombing in 1993.
Phelim said he has done the walking tour of the Shankill and the Falls and he didn't think that the length of the visit will put people off.
"We believe we have got a good package together and we are hoping the visitors will get a view from all angles."
One section of the tour, which many people would like to see vanishing from the itinerary, is the visit to the peace wall dividing Catholic and Protestant areas.
In the meantime, visitors are being given special 'Troubles tours' pens to add their messages of hope in Northumberland Street, where there's no sign of the writing on the wall coming for the huge barrier just yet.