... 'this is where they burnt the buses'

David McKittrick boards a tourist coach down the Falls Road to discover ...
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Quite a few people turned to watch, and a number cheerfully waved, as the eye-catching open-topped bus passed up the Falls Road, cruising slowly to let the Americans on the top deck pan their video cameras across the IRA murals.

"There you can see the rising sun and the tricolour flags," Colin, the Citybus driver, pointed out as he paused at the memorial to "Freedom's Sons", the members of D company, 2nd battalion, Belfast Brigade of the IRA.

"And that's the gable wall of the Sinn Fein press offices," he continue. "The man on the mural is Bobby Sands. He was the first of 10 hunger strikers to die here in 1981. He died on hunger strike for political status for prisoners. He was also elected an MP in the British Parliament."

A man on a ladder with a paintbrush, touching up the huge depiction of a smiling Bobby Sands, nodded pleasantly towards the bus as the video cameras whirred. "Very friendly people throughout Belfast," remarked Colin.

In fact, if the number of smiles and waves the bus attracted was anything to go by, the Falls Road was the friendliest part of the whole city. Passers- by and people sunning themselves in their little gardens were noticeably cheerful and welcoming.

This was, however, a warts and all tour. "If you look down on to the road surface," said Colin, "you'll see all the burn marks where the buses and vans and lorries were burnt out just a few weeks ago in the rioting after the release of Private Clegg."

The tour, called "Belfast - a living history", takes the tourists right through the republican and loyalist heartlands, pointing out not only the attractions of the city, but also its notorious troublespots.

Colin, a driver with the publicly-owned bus company, is genuinely proud of the place - "see how well our lovely city looks", he exclaimed at one point - but he also points out the scenes of bombings and shootings.

The contrast with what the same tour offered just a year ago was striking. A few weeks before the IRA ceasefire, the tourists were taken on a trip which did not merely skirt the violent areas but pretended they did not exist.

On a tour which lasted four hours the driver did not once mention the war: not a word about the IRA or the UVF, not one reference to the Shankill or the Falls.

Today, however, visitors are offered a rounded picture. After the Falls the bus headed up the Shankill, Colin pointing out the Orange halls, the bunting and the kerbstones painted red, white and blue.

He slowed at the site of the old Ulster Defence Association headquarters, where 10 people died in an IRA bombing two years ago, pointed out the memorial to the dead, and commented: "It was a terrible atrocity, which I think brought both communities back together."

Outside the Rex bar three lads holding beer bottles gave the bus a cheer and a wave, but several men at work on a new Ulster Volunteer Force mural merely glanced round and remained engrossed in their work.

The only hazards the tourists faced was a wee Shankill lad with a peashooter - "you always get the odd one", Colin remarked apologetically - and the low branches of trees sweeping the top of the bus.

At the end of the trip they applauded him and went off with their movies of Bobby Sands and the Shankill, things which are hopefully ceasing to be current affairs and are instead becoming the stuff of history.