“That’s where I was shot,” Jason O’Halloran says as his black cab slows down. The Belfast taxi tour guide has spent more than a decade recovering from the events of one night in 2002 when he was shot by loyalist gunmen, becoming one of the last victims of a sectarian conflict which consumed Northern Ireland for more than 30 years.
But his efforts to look forward, not back, at the events of the past have been challenged by fresh political turmoil in the state – and negotiations between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Theresa May’s minority government at Westminster.
“Everybody was optimistic until this year,” O’Halloran says. “These last couple of elections, especially the Westminster election have put fear in people’s life.”
Thousands of lives were lost during the Troubles, and the scars are still clear to see in Belfast today.
A 10ft tall Peace Line still divides Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods with access gates closing at 10pm and only opening again the next day. Homes near the line have prison-style grilles and gates over back gardens, beside eerie murals dedicated to the dead and injured.
Yet the DUP’s role in propping up the UK government has raised questions about Westminster’s role as an ‘honest broker’ in a peace process thrown into sharper focus by turmoil at the devolved Stormont assembly.
Stormont collapsed after the second election in a year in March and has until the end of June to form a devolved government. Talks between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, continue.
The 10ft Peace Line and protected gardens of houses in a Catholic area of the city
Meanwhile those involved in bringing about the Good Friday peace agreement have said Prime Minister Theresa May is “playing with fire” over her expected deal with the unionists.
But back in Northern Ireland, there is a sense that hope for a continued peace is fading.
“People are starting to go back and think about what could happen rather than what should be happening,” O’Halloran, 44, says. “Even since Thursday. If the DUP form part of the British government things are all under threat. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
“The hope I had was lost over the last couple of weeks.”
The Troubles consumed Northern Ireland for more than 30 years
Legions of tourists visit Belfast’s attractions each day, all keen to know more about the city where the Titanic was constructed and that plays host to a fascinating history, including the conflict in which O’Halloran was injured.
Yet while people on his taxi tours ask questions and take pictures, it’s clear that this part of the city’s past is yet to be set in stone.
“There was talk this year of bringing the wall down, but 97% of people that live on [the Catholic] side of the wall said ‘if this wall comes down, there will be trouble’, that their homes would be attacked again,” O’Halloran says. “The next time they’re gonna talk about bringing the wall down in 2024. The reality of this happening again is coming even closer if the DUP form a government with the Conservatives. This peace process doesn’t look likely to last.”
The DUP won most votes in both the Westminster and latest Stormont elections in Northern Ireland. Union flags line a street in East Belfast
O’Halloran’s fears are shared by former Downing Street communications director Alastair Campbell, who said last week Theresa May was playing “fast and loose… with John Major and Tony Blair’s greatest achievement which is the peace process in Northern Ireland.”
“She is putting it at risk with a sordid, disgraceful, dangerous deal,” he added.
And former Conservative PM Sir John Major aired his concerns on Tuesday saying he was “concerned”, “wary” and “dubious” about the Tories’ then proposed DUP agreement.
It’s a feeling echoed by people in Belfast, too.
“I’m worried, I lived through the Troubles,” Kathryn Johnston a journalist and Northern Irish Labour Party leader says. “I brought three children up through the Troubles in Belfast, they couldn’t go out at night because there was nowhere to go it literally wasn’t safe.
“I think what you see when you’ve got the spectre of the DUP going into coalition with Theresa May and the Conservatives is deeply deeply worrying,” she adds. “How can the Tories then negotiate with the Assembly when the partners in that Assembly are the DUP?”
Kathryn Johnston, journalist and NI Labour Party secretary, questioned how the British government can negotiate with prejudice
“It’s scary, my views are that I feel like the police policing the police. The government in Westminster are meant to be neutral when it comes to the Good Friday agreement so that’s going to ruin that,” Moira Anderson, 54, tells HuffPost UK near Queen’s University. “I have no problem with 10 MPs from here bolstering the Conservatives – though it’s not a party I’d vote for – I just would like a bit of assurance that our Good Friday agreement was protected.
“The world’s not good at the moment and I wouldn’t want to return to the Troubles. It’s scary. I listened to Alastair Campbell and I agree. I’m not coming from a sectarian point of view either.”
But not everyone feels the same.
Quintin Oliver, a political strategist who worked on the Good Friday agreement, told HuffPost that the UK government’s role as an ‘honest broker’ has always had to reflect its connections to other political parties involved.
“Everyone knows the British government has a vested interest, everyone knows the Irish government has vested interests about the island, about trade, about movement of people,” he says. “And yet the Irish and British governments have been able to perform with people knowing what their interests were, so I think it’s overstated and a useful stick to hit the British government with.”
“Being a unionist, I’m all in favour of making some sort of pact with Theresa May,” Stephen, a pensioner who declined to give his last name, tells HuffPost in the city centre. “I don’t think Mrs Foster should ask for an awful not now, a little bit is better than nothing. We should be going for a financial deal.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster and the party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds held talks about the deal at Downing Street
“I’m one of those people who lived through the worst of the Troubles and you become hardened to it to be honest with you,” he adds. “It’s nice to see peace but you think of the things I went through or we went through in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it’s nice to have peace but not peace at any cost.”
As talks continue at the Stormont assembly, the British government is mediating between the DUP and opposition Sinn Fein.
“The British government are supposed to be ‘honest brokers’ in the peace process here well that’s completely confused, clearly, if you have that government propped up by one of the parties of which the British government are supposed to be adjudicating,” Dr Margaret O’Callaghan of Queen’s University Belfast tells HuffPost. “There’s a whole kind of a mess. It may push Sinn Fein to press them into going for a devolved government here quicker than they might have done otherwise.
“While I don’t think there will be an outbreak of violence in six months, the British government shows scant respect for the Good Friday agreement. I don’t think Theresa May cares about it, there are hard unionists in her cabinet.”
But a new devolved government is one way to reassure people In Northern Ireland that normality can resume.
“The only thing that would bring hope back is if the government gets up and going in the north of Ireland again,” O’Halloran says, while the cameras of another tour group flash close by. “But it’s not looking likely.”