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July 24, 2023

Belfast’s past continues to shape its present and future

Belfast has emerged as a captivating urban centre, boasting a lively heritage of architectural ingenuity, industrial prowess and cultural excellence, but does the city still endure neglect amid a worrying trend for conflict tourism?

By Feargal Cochrane

The Harland and Wolff shipyard has become synonymous with the city of Belfast, its two huge banana-yellow cranes an indispensable part of the urban landscape. The cranes have become part of the essential physical fabric and identity of the city and its iconic architecture.

Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. (Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)

Unsurprisingly, in Belfast, as in many divided cities, the civic architecture goes beyond the bricks, mortar, glass and steel of the structures themselves. They are sites of cultural, political and historical significance, a point captured well by cultural commentators such as poet Tom Paulin. His poem A Partial State reflects the feeling that the architecture itself seemed to be buckling and warping under the political pressure of the times. Parliament Buildings, for example, known more popularly as Stormont, is dripping with historical political and cultural significance.

Opened in 1932 by Edward, Prince of Wales, the huge white building on top of a hill can be seen for miles across the city – which was in many ways the whole point. It was a physical marker that Northern Ireland was here and was here to stay. 

The devolved government ushered in nervously after partition in 1921 was making a public declaration through this enormous building that it was confident and (it thought) permanent. From its opening in 1932, the building became the embodiment of unionist political and cultural domination, with the magnificent statue of former leader of the Unionist Party Sir Edward Carson gesticulating defiantly at its foot. 

The building became the public manifestation of a divided community, with protest demonstrations by unionists (and occasionally nationalists) taking place there from the 1960s to the 1990s. In recent years, Parliament Buildings has been the site of a power-sharing government between the two main communities, led by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin and including the five largest parties in the region. 

While this has experienced some difficult moments and has collapsed on numerous occasions, it reflects the building’s enduring relevance to the political, economic and cultural life of Belfast. The physical fabric of the city reflects the waves of economic development, political radicalism and liberal enlightenment of the 18th century, the rise of the linen industry and shipbuilding of the 19th century and the political polarisation of the 20th century.

During the latter half of the 20th century, these buildings and the fabric of the city became engulfed in political instability and violent conflict during the period that is popularly known as the Troubles. 

Belfast’s post-Troubles economy

While Belfast has found it difficult to shake off its reputation as a city defined by intolerance, instability and sectarian violence, the Good Friday agreement reached in the 1990s has allowed it to develop a post-conflict economy.

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Since the 1990s turned into the 2000s, Belfast has emerged like the metaphorical phoenix from the flames into a vibrant cultural space with an economy transformed from the years of violent instability that plagued the city over previous generations.

While politically Northern Ireland remains dysfunctional and unstable, Belfast’s post-Troubles economy is gradually reshaping the city, in terms of both its physical space and its external identity. This revitalisation is particularly noticeable through the new tourism economy in Belfast and how that collides with the legacy of its past.

Belfast provides a fascinating example of both the opportunities and the sensitivities that accompany a society that is in the process of coming out of violent political conflict. Constructing a narrative on the past can be controversial and divisive, especially when people have avoided confronting it. However, building a post-conflict identity for external tourists eager to learn more about what took place in Belfast during the Troubles has provided new economic opportunities for the city and many of those who live there. 

Belfast is not unique in that respect, and many regions that have emerged from conflict have had to confront similar dilemmas. Tourism can be a vital lifeline for cities emerging from war and long-term political violence, assisting their economic recovery while also allowing people to collectively and individually remember what their society has been through. However, this simultaneously frames the political and cultural narrative of that conflict and brings new economic resources that can divide previously warring factions as easily as it unites them.

[Read more: Belfast has more peace walls now than 25 years ago – removing them will be a complex challenge]

The peace process has certainly allowed Belfast to blossom as a city, to build a new tourist product that was not available during the Troubles for obvious reasons. This treads a careful path in terms of how the conflict is remembered and represented and has replaced some of the more divisive and painful narratives of violence with more inclusive and positive messages that brand Belfast as a modern progressive society with a rich, if divided, heritage.

However, there are some people who fear that this is creating a political economy based on exploitation of ‘conflict hot spots’, rather than grassroots conflict transformation approaches that will benefit the post-conflict society that Belfast aspires to become. In this critique, the memory of the dead and injured during the Troubles has been cheapened and violated rather than cherished and commemorated. Critics of the new Belfast tourism believe that the profit motive has resulted in some of the most vulnerable people in Belfast, who are still living with the aftermath of the conflict, being transformed into a business commodity, in a dystopian zoo of enduring sectarian division.

Today, Belfast continues to be at the centre of debates over the extent to which tourist initiatives that engage with the political history of the city, and the Troubles especially, are helping visitors develop a more rounded and complex understanding of the conflict and the city, rather than being instead consumed as a more voyeuristic form of entertainment. The fact that visitors can come to Belfast and be exposed to the city and its rich cultural heritage might be seen as progress in itself, certainly compared with the decades that went before.

However, if tourists had visited Belfast during the Troubles era, they would have witnessed a blossoming of cultural activity in the city, the violence and division driving people to express themselves artistically. Powerful cultural movements frequently emerge out of grievance, anger and suffering, which might have something to do with the sheer volume of artistic excellence that has come out of Belfast over the past 50 years. 

In a city built across a sectarian fault line and fragmented by religion, political allegiance and cultural identity, it was inevitable that the arts would capture, absorb and refract that cultural inheritance.

This is an edited extract from Belfast: The Story of a City and Its People.

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