When President Joe Biden arrives in Belfast on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement even the choice of hotel illustrates
When President Joe Biden arrives in Belfast on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement even the choice of hotel illustrates how the city has been transformed by two-and-a-half decades of peace.
When President Bill Clinton visited in 1995 he stayed at the Europa Hotel. It was famous as the most bombed hotel in the world — but was the only place for VIPs to stay in a city riven by sectarian violence.
This time Biden will stay in one of the swanky new places that have opened in the past five years as part of the city’s renaissance.
Today the Belfast markets itself as a city break destination, with fine dining restaurants and boutique hotels.
That is far cry from when the Clintons visited in the mid 1990s amid a new push for peace to end decades of violence, as republicans and loyalists fought over the future of British rule in Northern Ireland.
British troops stand guard after yet another attack on Belfast’s Europa hotel in 1975. It was known as the ‘most bombed hotel in the world’ but was the only option for visiting VIPs
Now Belfast city center is full of gleaming new hotels. In 1994 there were only 900 hotel bedrooms in the whole city, according to Visit Belfast. Today the number is 5,500
Gerry Lennon, chief executive of Visit Belfast, said back then there would have been only 900 hotel bedrooms in the whole city, mostly catering to visiting journalists and officials or weddings.
‘In the 90s, although there was a political process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Belfast would have been discussed in the same breath as Beirut and Bosnia,’ he said.
‘Now we regularly compete with Barcelona and Berlin for international conferences, cruise ships and city breaks.’
VIPs had few options back then.
The Europa with more than 200 rooms would have been the only place that could cater to the sort of entourage that would arrive with a U.S. president.
It also had a restaurant, which made it a gathering place for politicians and journalists covering the Troubles, as the years of violence were known.
More than 3000 people died in political and sectarian unrest that lasted about 30 years.
On one side was the Provisional IRA and assorted republican groups who wanted an end to British rule and to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. On the other were loyalist groups, loyal to the British Crown.
In 1995, the Clintons stayed at the Europa. Hillary Clinton is seen here waving as she arrives
Another bomb alert at the hotel, this time in 1972. The place was used by visiting journalists and officials. Its restaurant and bar were where political gossip was swapped
Some 25 years of peace have transformed the city of Belfast. The Titanic Museum opened in 2012, and is a major tourist attraction, along with a Game of Thrones studio tour
The British Army was sent in to quell unrest in 1969. They were initially welcomed by Catholic, nationalist communities, who felt under threat from Protestants, but quickly came to be seen as an occupying force.
Belfast was frequently rocked by terrorist attacks. And the Europa was targeted more than 30 times — its high profile all but guaranteeing media coverage of attacks.
It opened in 1971, in the early years of the Troubles. And quickly earned the nickname the ‘hardboard hotel’ for the frequency with which its windows were boarded up.
Sometimes, though, its reputation overtook the truth.
Years later, Hillary Clinton described her trepidation when she stayed with her husband in 1995.
‘When Bill and I first came to Belfast, we stayed at the Europa Hotel … even though then there were sections boarded up because of damage from bombs,’ she said during a visit in 2009.
Biden arrives in Belfast on Tuesday evening before heading to Dublin the following day
Today the Europa is still a key part of the hotel scene. But visiting VIPs now have other options
In fact, it had not been bombed in at least a year and had been recently refurbished.
Claire Hanna, who represents Belfast South for the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the British parliament, said downtown then was not known as a place to visit in the evening.
‘I would struggle to name another hotel that was open at that time in the mid in the 90s,’ she said, before referring to attacks by the Provisional IRA terrorist group.
‘Despite the fact of the Provo bombing campaign, it probably had decent security, so it probably was the only option.’
Things have changed in the past 25 years, since the Good Friday Agreement cemented a ceasefire into a political solution with powersharing institutions.
Where British Army patrols would have once been spotted there are now ‘party bikes’, with boisterous bachelorette parties pedaling from pub to pub.
Belfast MP Claire Hanna said President Joe Biden will arrive in a city that is very different to the one that the Clintons found in 1995. Back then there was little nightlife down town
Some 170 cruise liners are expected to bring 360,000 visitors to Belfast this year. The Balmoral is seen here docked in Belfast in 2019
Biden will stay at a 23-floor hotel, with more than 300 bedrooms, just around the corner from the distinctive facade of the Europa.
New hotels loom over the central city hall, and tourists wheel their suitcases through the streets.
Belfast’s 900 hotel rooms in 1994 are now up to 5500.
In 1994, said Lennon, the tourism chief, some 200,000 people stayed overnight — many of them journalists — today the number is 1.7 million.
The Titanic Museum opened in 2012 and is a major tourist draw, along with a Game of Thrones studio tour just outside the city. (The hit HBO show was filmed in Northern Ireland.)
And this summer will bring in 170 cruise liners, disgorging 360,000 visitors in to the city.
‘The only tourists in the 1990s were intrepid visitors, like journalists,’ he said.
‘Now we have a phenomenal food scene, restaurant scene, fantastic pubs where tourism is now a major contributor to the economy, and we can still do a lot more.’