Belfast guided tours rapped as some accused of distorting city’s history

Businessman Willie Jack outside the Duke of York in Belfast city centre

The double-barrelled blast comes from a top city businessman and a veteran Belfast councillor, who has served for more than half-a-century in City Hall.

Bar and restaurant proprietor Willie Jack is one of the entrepreneurs credited with breathing new life into Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, which has become a tourist mecca in the heart of his native city.

He runs two pubs, a restaurant, and Ulster’s first Irish whiskey shop in the Commercial Court and Hill Street area he calls the “Half Bap” core of the Cathedral Quarter, and he is currently developing the New Orpheus art gallery, due to open next year.

He has already turned a cul-de-sac former car park into a virtual art gallery courtyard, with wall murals and caricatures celebrating the city and province’s prime characters Van Morrison, Ruby Murray, May McFettridge and Gloria Hunniford, as well as an array of Northern Ireland’s sporting heroes. But in recent days Mr Jack, a former pupil of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and a graduate of the London School of Economics, shut the gates on the courtyard gallery during daytime.

He has taken a decision to allow only those walking or taxi tour guides “who know what they are talking about” in to view and explain to their clients what is on display.

He bluntly explained: “I grew more and more tired and angry about some guides – not all of them – simply telling lies about my city and its people.

“This is a beautiful city with beautiful buildings, albeit that some of them are in dire need of repair and renovation to restore them to their former grandeur.”

As he spoke, yet another tour guide was chaperoning a group of tourists from the flotilla of cruise ships which have berthed in Belfast this summer around the Quarter’s cobblestone streets, a visitor influx reckoned to have injected a welcome £15 million into the local economy.

Mr Jack added: “She’s one of the good tour guides. But some of them simply don’t know what they’re talking about, especially when it comes to so-called ‘terror tours’.

“They are either not dealing in facts, or don’t know or care about them.”

Veteran Belfast councillor Chris McGimpsey backed the businessman last night. “There are bona fide and good tour guide companies and guides who relate the real history of this city, and who appreciate and convey to visitors that the history of Belfast did not start 40 years ago and end 10 years ago,” he said.

“In other words, that our civic history did not start and end with the Troubles.”

But the long-serving politician pointedly added: “There are also a number of cowboy operators wandering about Belfast talking nonsense and milking money out of people.

“Something definitely needs to be done about that.”

He called for a crackdown on such guides, advocating some form of “real and viable” regulation to be introduced, possibly by the City Council.

He said there were other tour guides, among them some taxi drivers, who were also “milking the Troubles”.

In that context, he added: “You would certainly get two interpretations of our recent history depending on whether you were being given a tour of the Falls or the Shankill Roads.”

However, Mr McGimpsey admitted: “You may try to regulate tour guides by setting up a licensing system or whatever, but regulating what they actually say to tourists may be a completely different problem.”

The UUP politician also had a swipe at some of the cruise companies who, he claimed, organised expensive tours once the big ships berth.

“They take a lot of money off those on board, put them on buses into the city centre, and then simply dump them off for a guided tour of the City Hall,” he claimed.

“But the tours of the City Hall are free.

“And that means that the ratepayers are getting nothing in return into the city coffers, while the cruise ship operators are cashing in on the City Hall guided tours.

“Maybe that’s something else that needs to be looked at.”