In praise of the Europa Hotel

The Europa Hotel is 40 and the BBC are going to do a special programme to mark the official beginning of its middle age. It was famously the most bombed hotel in the world (according to Wikipedia it was bombed 28 times). Practically everyone in Northern Ireland must have been past the hotel and many must have been in it. I have been to a couple of UUP events there years ago; a few work meetings; have had my tea there twice (well dinner actually: it is after all a four star hotel and not in culchie land) and once went for a cup of tea with a fellow blogger. As such I am far from a heavy user of the establishment but to me (the same age as the hotel) it has always been there, a reassuringly constant landmark on the fairly low rise Belfast skyline and a bit less odd looking than the bright yellow City Hospital.

In a way the Europa might be seen as a symbol of Northern Ireland during the Troubles and maybe even a symbol of the victory of the ordinary people over the terrorists. That was not a victory by unionists or nationalists but a victory by the people who were determined to get on with their lives without resorting to shooting; killing or bombing their neighbours and who never supported the violence brought upon society.

Even during the worst days of the Troubles most people were in the process of being born, growing up, going to school, leaving for work or university(or unemployment), having children, growing older, retiring and dying: all of that without wishing or bringing harm on their fellow citizens. Unionists and nationalists may have strongly, passionately disagreed over politics but the vast majority never indulged in violence and murder. Just getting on with it was a means of fighting back and the Europa is in some ways emblematic of getting on with it. After the hotel was attacked time and again the glass was fixed, the damage repaired and the doors reopened: often not to a fanfare but just to normality. That is the way of the best Northern Ireland response to the troubles: not flashy, not especially exciting nor emotional but practical.

It might almost be suggested that that determined, studied normality is what the terrorists of both sides so hated here in Northern Ireland and maybe even one of the reasons why the IRA kept trying to blow the hotel up. It and we refused to surrender to mayhem; refused to accept that we were living in a war zone but rather carried on. Yes there problems even gross and unacceptable ones (and the Europa never had quite the cachet of some other hotels) but society did not collapse and most people resolutely refused to surrender to acceptance of the murderous bigots who claimed to kill on their behalf.

The hotel was not some sort of ecumenical project nor a cross community bridge. It was not a symbol of “let’s get along-ism” as practised by the “Liberal Dissidents:” rather the hotel was and is a symbol of let’s get on with normal life: the prime motivation of most of us here during the Troubles and at some level why we, the normal decent people of all sides and none, won. Happy birthday Europa: despite a much harder life you look better for your 40 years than I do.