Mike Gerrard tours Belfast's past, present and future in the back of a black cab
It's not your conventional tour. But then Belfast is not your conventional city. Nor is Michael Johnston a conventional tour leader. Michael was a taxi driver at the height of the Troubles, which forced him out of his own city. "I'd lived here all my life, but the Troubles were too much for me. Fifteen innocent taxi drivers were shot dead, so I decided to leave. I've lived in New Zealand, Canada, Dublin, the USA - but I missed Belfast so much that I had to come back, and I returned to driving the black cab when things seemed to have improved a wee bit."

Michael got so many requests from visitors to take them round the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas that he decided to offer organised tours as well as doing his regular cab work. "Most people do want to see the areas they've seen on the television, and they want to know more about what's gone on, you know? You can ask anything you want to ask. Most people are a wee bit shy, but they want to know, so just ask. And feel safe. It's perfectly safe, and feel free to take photos if yous have cameras. People don't mind, they actually want you to see the murals."

As we drive out of the compact city centre, Michael points out two huge yellow cranes over in the docks. "They are Samson and Goliath and they helped build the Titanic in 1911. In those days there were 25-30,000 people working in the shipyards, and though they're still busy, these days there's only 5,000 people working there, thanks to computerisation and mechanisation."

We move on but within a minute or so we stop again and hear the first name that brings a chilling reminder of some of the things that have happened in Belfast. "On the left," says Michael, "is the Crumlin Road Courthouse, where they used to try the terrorists. There's a tunnel under the road so that when they were sent down, they went straight into the Crumlin Road Jail that you see on the other side. It's no longer in use, but these are both listed buildings, and next year they are opening the jail as a public records office, where people can trace their family history."

Martin McGuinness spent several months in that jail in 1976 after being charged with membership of the IRA, though the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Everyone you speak to in Belfast seems optimistic about the future, expecting the peace process to succeed, and as the taxi takes us into the Shankill Road and later the Falls Road, you can begin to see what a monumental task the politicians have faced, and still face.

"In the Shankill Road," says Michael, "you'll see everything is red, white and blue. Here we're only maybe 400 yards from the city centre. People don't realise how close it all is. The Shankill Road and the Falls Road both run out of the centre, parallel to one another, a few hundred yards apart. But people on both sides are now trying to educate the children out of this trap, they're building parks and playgrounds and football pitches to give the youngsters something else to do."

We drive along the Shankill Road, looking like any other shopping street in any working-class area of any British city on a pre-Christmas Saturday. Plastic Santas stare out of shop windows, mums push prams, dads follow along pretending to show an interest in doing the Christmas shopping. Then you see some graffiti: "All drug dealers will be shot". "You get that on both sides," Michael points out.

You also get the bold and colourful murals, by the dozen, far more than I'd expected, and decorating the sides of shops on the main street as well as in the housing estates. A Japanese tourist is photographing a painting showing the Ulster Volunteer Force as heroes, and next to it the Ulster Freedom Fighters who are "Simply the Best". "You can see where Catholics have come into the area and thrown paint bombs at it," says Michael.

But we know it's more than paint bombs that get thrown, as Michael drives us down Lanark Way, known as Murder Mile, where tit-for-tat killings once took place. At the end we reach the sadly named Peace Wall, built to separate the two sides in an attempt to reduce the violence. It's a depressing sight in any city, a concrete and steel block topped by barbed wire, burnt by petrol bombs, the houses on either side with blackened window frames, like some Hollywood nightmare of a futuristic society blighted by violence.

The hope is that here it is the past, and the Peace Wall will become a symbolic name, the wall itself torn down, like the Berlin Wall, by the people living on either side of it. Today it is covered by messages added by visitors from all over the world: "Peace for all in Northern Ireland", "Violence defeats the cause" and "One god, one people. Nicola, USA".

We drive through the Peace Gates, which used to be locked at 6pm to keep the two sides apart. On the far side is the Falls Road, the Catholic area, which is a mirror-image of the Shankill Road except that the colours here are green, white and gold, rather than red, white and blue. In windows you'll see the Pope instead of the Rev Ian Paisley, but everyone here is Christmas shopping too.

We pass the Royal Victoria Hospital. "They're good at fixing elbows and knee-caps," Michael says ruefully, "and they've a very good burns unit. People come from all over the world now to be treated here."

The murals and slogans are here too, painted with as much colour and conviction, one a tribute to Bobby Sands and the other hunger-strikers. We visit Milltown Cemetery where Michael Stone opened fire and threw grenades at the funeral of the Gibraltar Three, sending three more people to an early death. Giuseppe Conlon, whose death in prison is depicted movingly in the film In the Name of the Father, is also buried here.

If the tour sounds depressing and voyeuristic, that's only a small part of it. It's a fascinating and deeper look into something only familiar from the news stories. It's finding out for yourself what Belfast is like instead of imagining it, and discovering it's full of good food and drink, music, beautiful buildings, museums and, ironically, the friendliest people you'll find anywhere.

"Belfast sits in a magnificent valley," Michael says. "Now I'm going to take you out and in a couple of minutes you'll get a great view."

And we do. Despite it being a pretty dull day, we can see across the city, across the Catholic and Protestant areas, across the city centre with its cathedrals and towers, and over to Samson and Goliath standing guard at the docks. And in the far distance, on the side of a green hill, Michael points out a grand old building that looks like a country mansion and is hit by a patch of sunlight shining through the clouds, painting it gold.

That, says Michael, is Stormont.



Mike Gerrard travelled to Belfast as a guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, St Anne's Court, 59 North Street, Belfast BT1 1NB (tel: 01232 231221; fax: 01232 240960; net: www.ni-tourism. com); and 24 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4DG (tel: 08701 555250; fax: 0171-766 9929).

A return flight from Stansted to Belfast City airport (10 minutes from the city centre) with Jersey European (tel: 0990 676676) costs pounds 123 including taxes.

He stayed at the McCausland Hotel, 34-38 Victoria Street, Belfast BT1 3GH (tel: 028 9022 0200). A double room in this Grade A-listed building close to the Laganside waterfront development costs pounds 150 per night, pounds 120 single occupancy.

Michael Johnston's Black Taxi Tours last about 90 minutes and cost from pounds 7 per person for a minimum of three people (tel: 028 9064 2264; mobile: 07860 127207; fax: 028 9064 7700; net: www.belfasttours.com)