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Just Looking: Belfast Works On A Good Look For The Future

  • May 15th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

ulster-pub-2.jpgOPINION: Spruced up like so many other provincial cities in Britain and Ireland, the city is working on its new future, as the “coalition of extremities” takes office in Ulster.

Lee Duffield writes.

Walking the city it seems an unlikely setting for the “troubles” past.

The famed 19th Century townscape belies the reputation of dismal mean streets.

It has the air and look of hundreds of such places, with a prosperous middle class in evidence, proud public buildings on display and some big old stores and arcades still doing well.

In pubs going back over a century you can get a snug to meet friends; a wood-panelled alcove, its partitions not quite reaching eye level ensure some privacy for drinkers around the table.

The economy is going ahead; boosterism rules; every effort is made at every level to show this place is friendly towards outsiders; the idea of being unsafe hardly comes into the equation.

Yet it is easy enough to learn about the last long round of inter-communal violence that revived and thrived after 1969, confounding all efforts to end and expunge it.

One of the welcoming committee at the Church of Ireland (Anglican) cathedral makes a point of mentioning the peace partnership with the neighbouring Catholic congregation, clergy and choirs exchanging visits.

People there will also point out gaps between buildings across the road where some were blown up and not replaced.

In a group within our snug, a young woman gives a reminder that it’s long been a class-conscious town, the economic divisions hand-in-hand with religious ones:

“You’ll see that some areas have paved footpaths, those are middle class, and the others have tarmac; so why is that?”

Visitors can go on a tour to see the prosaic, unlikely-looking battlefields of Belfast; small suburban zones with not that many shops or houses, nothing heroic; tragedy, egregious hatreds and filthy deeds seem to thrive in commonplace settings.

The names of the Crumlin Road, Shankill Road and Falls Road became famous in the time of terrorism and military occupation; some of the paramilitaries’ wall murals still dominate the streets here and there; police still have armoured cars.

There are enough reminders to show that the reconciliation demonstrated on 8.5.07, with the formation of a power-sharing Northern Ireland government, could be precarious – but different kinds of change might do better.

That provincial habit of boosterism is alive and well in this town of some 500 000.

In the old ship-building yards just close to town, the few remnants of a former construction dock have been preserved, where they put together the “Olympic” and the “Titanic”, and this is to become a remember-the-Titanic, historical theme park for tourists.

Nearby at Queen’s Quay the Oddysey entertainment centre, with also an “interactive discovery centre” for education, is already a world landmark; it speaks for a more 21st century outlook.

The giant cranes of the much scaled-down Harland and Wolff shipyard, “Samson” and “Delilah” still dominate the yards, but are out of service, now Heritage objects.

The ship-building industry in its prime employed 35 000; it’s down to some 200 working on ships maintenance, though utilising a huge dry dock.

The general retreat of heavy industry which hit the province is being seen now as a key break with the past in different ways.

In those days jobs went mainly to protestants; the “new economy” of Ireland, all services orientated, is not so amenable to that kind of thing.

Some of the many new participants would not appear to care much about the past in any event; part of the experience of standing on street corners in Belfast is to catch snatches of conversation in eastern European languages; booming Ireland is a favourite destination for many young citizens of the European Union, especially from the Baltics.

If universal love won’t conquer all troubles perhaps money will, and meanwhile the political settlements have to be made.

On 3 May this year the protestant-based paramilitary group, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) announced it was renouncing violence and would quarantine its arms. The Provisional IRA linked to the catholic-based Sinn Fein party announced the end of its armed campaign in 2005.

In elections since 2005, with a final decision-time in the offing for the province’s future, the more radical parties on both sides got most of the vote, and so dominate the Ulster parliament, under the devolved United Kingdom system.

This month they formed a coalition, the Reverend Ian Paisley from the Democratic Unionist Party as First Minister, Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein as his Deputy.

Picture: One of several historical Belfast pubs.