When President Joe Biden arrives in Belfast on Tuesday to celebrate 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 him in 1995, he stayed at the Europa Hotel. It was known as the most bombed-out hotel in the world, but it was the only place for VIPs to stay in a city torn apart by sectarian violence.
This time, Biden is staying at the Grand Central hotel, one of the posh new places that have opened in the past five years as part of the city’s renaissance.
Today, Belfast markets itself as a city break destination, with fine dining and boutique hotels.
That’s a far cry from when the Clintons visited in the mid-1990s amid a new push for peace to end decades of violence, when Republicans and Loyalists battled over the future of British rule in Northern Ireland .
British troops stand guard after another attack on the Europa Hotel in Belfast in 1975. It was known as the ‘most bombed-out hotel in the world’ but was the only option for visiting VIPs
Now Belfast city center is full of shiny new hotels. According to Visit Belfast, in 1994 there were only 900 hotel rooms in the entire city. Today the number is 5,500
Visit Belfast chief executive Gerry Lennon said there would have been only 900 hotel rooms in the entire city at the time, most of which were for visiting journalists and civil servants or weddings.
“In the 1990s, 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 trips.’
VIPs had few options back then.
The 200+ room Europa would have been the only place suitable for the kind of entourage that would arrive with a US president.
There was also a restaurant, making it a meeting place for politicians and journalists covering the Troubles, as the years of violence were called.
More than 3,000 people died in political and sectarian unrest that lasted about 30 years.
On one side was the Provisional IRA and various republican groups seeking to end British rule and reunite with the Republic of Ireland. On the other side were loyalist groups, loyal to the British Crown.
In 1995, the Clintons stayed in the Europe. Hillary Clinton is seen here waving as she arrives
Another bomb threat at the hotel, this time in 1972. The place was used by visiting journalists and officials. Political gossip was exchanged in the restaurant and bar
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 1969 to quell the unrest. They were initially welcomed by Catholic, nationalist communities, who felt threatened by Protestants, but were soon seen as an occupying force.
Belfast was regularly rocked by terrorist attacks. And the Europa has been targeted more than 30 times – its high profile almost guarantees media attention for attacks.
It opened in 1971, in the early years of the Troubles. And soon got the nickname ‘hardboard hotel’ because of the frequency with which the windows were boarded up.
But sometimes his reputation caught up with 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 sections were boarded up at the time due to bomb damage,” she said during a visit in 2009.
Biden arrives in Belfast on Tuesday evening and departs for Dublin the following day
Today, the Europa is still an important part of the hotel scene. But visiting VIPs now have other options
In fact, it hadn’t been bombed for at least a year and had been recently refurbished.
Claire Hanna, who represents Belfast South for the Social Democratic and Workers’ Party in the UK Parliament, said the center was not known as a place to visit at night at the time.
“I would struggle to name another hotel that was open at the time in the mid-90s,” she said, before referring to attacks by the Provisional IRA terror group.
“Despite the Provo bombings, there was probably decent security, so it was probably the only option.”
Things have changed in the last 25 years, since the Good Friday Agreement cemented a ceasefire into a political solution with power-sharing institutions.
Where British Army patrols would once have been spotted now stand ‘party bikes’, with rambunctious stag and hen parties pedaling from pub to pub.
Claire Hanna, MP for Belfast, said President Joe Biden will arrive in a city very different from the one the Clintons lived in in 1995. There was little nightlife in the city at the time
Some 170 cruise ships are expected to bring 360,000 visitors to Belfast this year. The Balmoral is docked here in Belfast in 2019
Biden will reside in a 23-story hotel, with more than 300 bedrooms, just around the corner from the Europa’s signature facade.
New hotels loom over the central town hall and tourists wheel their suitcases through the streets.
Belfast’s 900 hotel rooms in 1994 are now up to 5500.
In 1994, Lennon, the tourism chief said, some 200,000 people stayed overnight – many of them journalists – today the number is 1.7 million.
Opened in 2012, the Titanic Museum is a major tourist attraction, along with a Game of Thrones studio tour just outside of town. (The popular HBO show was filmed in Northern Ireland.)
And this summer, 170 cruise ships will arrive, bringing 360,000 visitors 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 do a lot more.”