Lesley Riddoch: Happy birthday to Belfast

A clutch of tourism-related awards suggests Northern Ireland's capital is now a place worth visiting. Picture: PA/NITB
A clutch of tourism-related awards suggests Northern Ireland's capital is now a place worth visiting. Picture: PA/NITB
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A new, vibrant Belfast is rising from its dark past, relishing the chance to show its good side, writes Lesley Riddoch

Belfast is 400 years old this week – but the city has fewer obvious reasons to celebrate than a century back, when the loss of the “unsinkable” Titanic delivered a massive blow to morale.

Economic performance indicators published last week proved Northern Ireland still has the highest level of inactivity among the UK’s 12 regions and the highest overall unemployment.

Water cannons were rolled out in anticipation of protests during Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Two decades ago, while she was prime minister, ten Republican prisoners died on hunger strike and 100,000 people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands. Even today there’s no deeper scar in any other part of the UK.

Days earlier, the Boston bombings created echoes across Northern Ireland – especially Lisburn, where six soldiers competing in a half marathon were killed in a booby-trap explosion on their way back to barracks in 1988. Such weekly death tolls are mercifully a thing of the past. But 15 years after a unique power-sharing government was ushered in by the Good Friday agreement, fierce arguments over symbols remain.

“Thatcher the real criminal” appeared in massive letters on the Black Mountain overlooking Belfast, as the Royal British Legion considered a proposal to fly the Union flag permanently over the Cenotaph. Their rejection was deemed a further “snub” to unionists after Belfast City Council’s controversial decision to limit Union flag-flying over the City Hall.

Protests and disruption this winter caused 100 arrests, dozens of injuries to police and the loss of an estimated £15 million in revenue and 300 jobs. But despite some ugly scenes, all parties are still talking (if sometimes also shouting). Years ago, it could have been much, much worse.

Segregation is still a way of life – highlighted in Holyrood by author and philosopher AC Grayling, who said: “The argument against faith-based schools can be summed up in two words – ‘Northern Ireland’. It’s true – only 7 per cent of children go to mixed schools in Northern Ireland. But an opinion poll last month showed four in five parents want their child’s school to become integrated.

Change is in the air. And maybe this war-torn province has something to teach her noisier, wealthier but socially unequal Celtic cousin about the courage needed to tackle deep-seated division.

The £97 million Titanic Centre will announce its first year’s visitor figures tomorrow – amid speculation that the total is nearly a million. That will put Titanic – the first project agreed by all parties after power sharing – in the top three of all Irish visitor attractions. Not close to the National Museum of Scotland’s reopening annual total of 1.5 million visitors, but the museum is free to visit, while the Titanic is £14 for adults, and Northern Ireland has only a third of Scotland’s population.

The Titanic’s impressive debut year follows a welter of accolades about the city’s transformed atmosphere and infrastructure. In 2011, National Geographic Traveller voted Belfast one of the top ten places to visit; Condé Nast included the new designer Fitzwilliam Hotel in its top 20 world hotels; the Financial Times put Belfast in its top ten conference venues and Trip Advisor said Belfast was the best-value UK city break.

One swallow doth not a summer make. But such a clutch of tourism-related awards suggests a sea-change is happening among that hardest-to-command sector – local people. And it’s true.

Now – even though routes across the “Peace Wall” in West Belfast still close at 7pm every night by mutual consent – the almost unthinkable is being proposed – an £18m peace centre at the site of the Maze – the notorious jail near Lisburn where the hunger strikers died.

The proposal got planning permission last week and architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed Ground Zero in New York and the award-winning Jewish Museum in Berlin, said: “I would not be involved if I did not think it was important.”

Opinion is divided. One commentator wrote: “The site could help us digest our troubled past rather than choke on its unresolved legacy.” A headline in the Belfast Telegraph read: “Yes, it could be a terror shrine, but only if unionists don’t buy into it. Do it properly and we could hold up our heads and say: ‘This is our story’.” Meanwhile, victims groups may launch a judicial review to stop the project in its tracks.

Of course cynicism is ever present. Republicans suggest unionist politicians have only backed the project to make sure prisoners’ stories are not told and the site becomes a formal, unemotional, “glass-cased” museum – without the personalisation and wider context that have made the Titanic experience unforgettable. Who knows what real motives are afoot.

One thing’s certain. Even when Iain Paisley and Martin McGuinness became the world’s most unlikely political double act six years ago, such a proposal would still have been unthinkable. Now it’s part of ambitious long-term strategy-setting.

Professor Brandon Hamber, of the University of Ulster, asks: “Is our goal one of ‘thin’ integration or deeper social transformation? Will we settle for a society where dominant communities remain separate and hopefully equal, co-existing in negative peace? Or are we seeking more profound change where all aspects of life are integrated?”

For every angry voice raised over a flag, there is the wild hope of projects like these and Backin Belfast – a push to get locals back into the city to shop, meet, work and socialise.

But beyond the government-sponsored campaigns lies an even more impressive achievement. From bus driver to hotel receptionist, from guide at the Titanic Centre to driver on a black cab tour, from kitchen worker in a city café to lads heading for a night out at the Odyssey arena, there is one consistent response to strangers – open, helpful, genuinely welcoming, relaxed and friendly.

Warmer indeed than you could expect in any of Scotland’s “less troubled” cities – and (since East European workers departed a few years back) home-grown. A new, vibrant version of Irishness is developing in Belfast. Less dependent on blarney, Guinness and tacky Rose of Tralee-type sentimentality. More fragile and less cocky. More self-aware, more grateful for peace, more pleasantly surprised by world-class achievement and more community-based.

Happy birthday, Belfast. May the road rise up to meet you.