Belfast’s Europa Hotel does not merely offer its visitor a warm welcome and tremendous hospitality, it offers a storied past and an unsurpassed history. This icon, once known as the “most bombed hotel in Europe”, has been the subject of many articles and documentaries and remains a star in many tourist selfies.
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, The Europa was a prestige target, an attack on which would guarantee media exposure. And thus, the hotel was bombed more than 30 times by the Provisional IRA and came to be referred to as the “hardboard hotel” on account of the building’s shattered windows frequently being replaced with wooden boards in the wake of a bombing.
The Europa is a hotel that has faced challenges throughout its nearly 50-year history, yet it has always survived them. This year, however, has been the most difficult since the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998.
Julie Hastings, marketing director of the Hastings Hotel Group that owns The Europa, lamented: “Even during the height of the Troubles, we only closed for refurbishments, but this year, the pandemic has forced us to shut the doors amidst growing uncertainty.”
The current closure is a “temporary suspension of services”, at least according to a press release from the hotel’s owners, but there is little doubt that the COVID-19 crisis represents an existential threat to the most iconic of Belfast’s hotels.
I first became fascinated with The Europa’s history while researching a book about Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, a front-line hotel within a besieged city that – like The Europa – became a centre for the international press corps. I had visited The Europa on numerous occasions, and returned there last year to film for the Al Jazeera series War Hotels, which was produced by the journalist and filmmaker Abdallah El Binni.
While so doing, we had the opportunity to interview some of the journalists who had been based at The Europa during the Troubles – the BBC’s Martin Bell, ITN’s Gerald Seymour, Henry Kelly of the Irish Times, Robin Walsh of Ulster Television – as well as the hotel’s staff, some of whom had experienced the tumultuous events that took place within it.
The Europa was conceived before the onset of the Troubles. Although the plans for the building were revealed in 1966, the Grand Metropolitan Hotels Group began construction of the hotel in the autumn of 1969, a matter of weeks after the British Army had been deployed in Northern Ireland following violent clashes between the Protestant and Catholic communities. The hotel opened its doors in August 1971, although it was already in the crosshairs of the IRA. Days before the hotel’s official opening, it was targeted, and though the damage was limited, it was a portent of dark things to come.
By dint of good fortune, The Europa was managed by Harper Brown, a charismatic hotelier with a penchant for sharp dressing and jazz music. Although already an experienced manager when he was recruited, he could scarcely have imagined what lay ahead when he accepted the job. The guests Brown might have expected were soon replaced by a strange mix of journalists, spies, politicians and paramilitaries. The hotel was, according to the late Chris Ryder, who covered the Troubles for The Sunday Times newspaper, a “crossroads of intrigue”.
The journalists kept The Europa operational at a time when “normal” guests were conspicuous by their absence. Their needs were unlike those of peacetime clients. Most would check in and request rooms on the upper floors of the hotel, avoiding rooms on the lower floors where their windows might be blown out by a blast. Yet, despite the dangers outside, correspondents could work comfortably in The Europa, which had 20 telephone lines and a 10th-floor darkroom for developing photographs.
Brown understood what journalists required and went to significant lengths to accommodate them, whether at work or at play. By day, according to Robin Walsh, then Ulster Television’s chief news editor, The Europa was transformed into a “newsroom”, while in the evening the journalists could enjoy a drink in the Whip and Saddle public bar or a meal at the Beefeater restaurant. And for entertainment into the small hours, there was The Penthouse bar on the top floor of the hotel.
The mid-1970s were the hardest years for The Europa, with bomb attacks on the hotel increasing in frequency and intensity. Two huge bombs – in January and December 1975 – caused the hotel to increase its security measures, but Brown remained proud that, despite all the setbacks, it never closed. Even in the immediate aftermath of attacks, parts of the hotel that were unaffected remained operational.
The 1980s saw a general improvement in the security situation in central Belfast and for the embattled hospitality sector, but on December 4, 1991, an IRA bomb concealed in a hijacked van in Glengall Street blew a gaping hole in the side of the building, severely damaging the lower floors. And on May 20, 1993, a bomb caused devastation at the junction of Great Victoria Street and Glengall Street, badly damaging The Europa.
In August 1993, as the future of the hotel looked bleak, a local businessman, William Hastings, stepped forward as its saviour. Buying a hotel that had long been a target for the IRA was a significant risk, but it was one that ultimately paid off. Within months of purchasing it, the IRA and Unionist paramilitaries signed a ceasefire agreement, the first step in a lengthy process that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to three decades of sectarian violence.
US President Bill Clinton stayed in the hotel during a visit to Belfast in November 1995, and US Senator George Mitchell, Clinton’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, was resident for long periods during the subsequent negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Europa has thrived in the years since the end of the Troubles. Belfast became an increasingly popular destination for short breaks while the wealthy were attracted to Northern Ireland by the prospect of playing golf on some of the finest courses in Europe.
But this year, the city’s hotel industry began to feel the pinch as the COVID-19 crisis worsened across Europe and, in March, measures that inhibited potential guests’ mobility were enacted by governments.
The subsequent UK-wide lockdown forced the hotel to close, but as summer approached, Northern Ireland’s hospitality sector began to recover, benefitting from the “staycation” boom.
“We welcomed more visitors from all over Ireland than ever before,” said Julie Hastings. This contributed to a general improvement but it was only a temporary respite. At the beginning of September, occupancy rates slumped again and, as fears of a second wave of COVID-19 became increasingly acute, the downward trend continued.
The challenges for The Europa, and for the broader hospitality sector, are manifold. In the coming months, revenues are likely to decrease and recovery could be slow. According to Hastings: “The conference and meetings markets will be slow to return and weddings are equally problematic because of the lack of clear guidance about numbers. And the whole international market will be slow to return until people know it is safe to travel without the need to quarantine.”
The Europa survived the worst of times, has thrived since – and is now faced with what is perhaps its toughest challenge. But this iconic hotel has an almost innate resilience and a history that suggests it can, and will, emerge from this crisis, as it has so many times in the past.