The residents of divis Tower celebrated this summer when the British army closed the observation post that had taken up the top two floors of their drab apartment block in West Belfast for more than 30 years. Not Joe Lavelle. As his guided tour passed on the road below, soldiers used to wave on cue when passengers pointed their cameras from the open top of their double-decker bus. Now, as a mark of the peace that's slowly settled over Northern Ireland, the troopers and their fortified outpost are gone. "It's like going to Paris and not having the Eiffel Tower," sighs Lavelle.
There's more tourism than terrorism in Belfast these days. In parts of the city where even the army used to fear to tread, camera-toting visitors now arrive in a steady stream, and former combatants are among a range of people figuring out how to make a legitimate buck from the mayhem they once caused. Companies set up by ex-republican and ex-loyalist prisoners offer firsthand accounts of the bad old days in their warring neighborhoods. The onetime enemies will even quietly share clients. "Thousands of people are coming here every week," says Caoimhín Mac Giolla Mhín from the Irish Republican Army prisoners' group, Coiste, as another bus passes along the Catholic Falls Road. "They're not coming here for fishing. Not everybody wants to lie on a beach."
Onboard one of Lavelle's buses last week, 40 people listened attentively to the quieter parts of Belfast's history, like the building of the Titanic in a local shipyard. But their necks craned whenever they passed a temple of recent turbulence, like police stations surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, and the West Belfast peace line, a barrier that has separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods longer than Berlin was divided by its wall. Their guide, Bren-dan McKernan, laced fact with a heavy dose of blarney. He recited the alphabet soup of Irish paramilitary groups just as the bus passed a fast food restaurant. To the i.r.a., i.n.l.a., u.d.a. and u.v.f., he added kfc. "Their leader was known as the Colonel," he deadpanned. "They were responsible for a lot of stomach injuries." Another guide eases nerves by repeating that passengers have nothing to fear, then asks them to pick up their bulletproof vests at the back of bus. He always gets a laugh.
Real violence does some-times intrude. When the embers of the Troubles flare up, as they did during loyalist riots last month, the number of gawkers drops off. "But a week later we're pointing out the burn marks on the walls to them," says Lavelle. In that sense, the Troubles tourism mirrors the odd resilience of Northern Ireland's stuttering peace process. Last week, after a panel of international witnesses confirmed that the i.r.a. had finally disposed of its immense arsenal as unionists had long demanded, the unionists' leader, Ian Paisley, seemed unable to accept yes for an answer. He implied he would keep stalling efforts to revive a power-sharing government in Belfast, because he didn't trust the i.r.a. Many other unionists fear his perpetual intransigence is losing them ground.
But the reality of Ulster today is that no matter what Paisley does, no one expects any more serious violence. Instead, people are planning more constructive ways to harness the power of the past: turning part of the Maze Prison, where 10 republican inmates starved themselves to death in 1981, into a museum; trying to build a hotel on the site of a recently demolished police station; perhaps erecting a visitors' center where back-packers can come to write messages on the peace line. "This wall's not coming down in the foreseeable future," says William Smyth, a former loyalist prisoner.
"What we want to do is get something from it for the area." He thinks Belfast can only benefit by making money out of making peace.