Upon first impression, Belfast looks like any European city, with the usual high-street stores and Caffé Nero outlets. But the past hovers.
“Come to the city center after 6 p.m., and everything is closed,” says Paul Donnelly, a former conflict mediator who leads walking tours about how the Troubles—which claimed over 3,600 lives in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998—affected ordinary civilians. What he calls a “dead center” is a hangover from that time, when the city’s core was barricaded by a “ring of steel” built by the British Army. After 6 p.m., no one was allowed to enter. “We haven’t emerged completely from the patterns of behavior the Troubles produced. Even now, some of us will never sit with our backs to the door in a pub or restaurant. That’s classic Belfast.”