The skyline in Belfast is climbing high. Only last month, the brand new Titanic hotel – a luxury hotel which has seen £28m worth of investment, and the creation of over 90 new jobs – opened for business.
It comes at a time of widespread change for Northern Ireland. And with tourist numbers up by 23 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 alone, it’s clear that Belfast is beginning to truly make its mark as a capital city in its own right.
Such business ventures are representative of a wider cultural shift, where a more positive history is being used as a tool for investment. The Titanic is just the latest in a growing list of similar projects: the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry opened in 2004; a C.S. Lewis Square in 2016. Most recently, plans have been announced for the creation of a George Best themed hotel in the city-centre.
At the root of all this lies a deeper cultural purpose: to celebrate a past that is not undermined by violence and to return to the original roots of Belfast, where a booming industry in linen, tobacco, engineering and shipbuilding created a thriving urban centre.
Efforts to revive the historical currency of Belfast haven’t been without their problems, though – and recent political headlines have reignited the underlying divisions that exist between communities in Northern Ireland, and relations with the United Kingdom as a whole. With Brexit has come the inevitable tensions surrounding the Irish border, threatening to undermine the peace of the Good Friday Agreement. The coalition between the Conservative government and the Democratic Unionist Party has done much to reinforce the damaging narrative that the province is a parochial backwater. And, most recently, the setbacks surrounding an inquiry into the Troubles have reopened old wounds.
As a state, Northern Ireland was born out of conflict, both externally with Britain and internally through civil strife. Peace has come at a cost, and the country remains overshadowed by its recent past. And it is a history that continues to draw living and tangible boundary lines across Belfast: 108 peace walls still stretch across the province. While communities on either side of these security barriers often tend to support their existence, there is little doubt that the walls are emblematic of Belfast’s fear of regression; the merging of history with the everyday has created an underlying lack of trust between the different districts.
So what have been the implications of this historical legacy? As the more traditional industries fell into rapid decline, this led to a period of ‘industrial suburbanisation’, with many of the new industries and housing developments being relocated outside the city. Combined with increasing emigration – it is estimated that over a third of the population left during the Troubles – the result was a detrimental impact upon both inward investment and Belfast’s place within the broader framework of the European market. Until the early 1990s, Northern Ireland was ranked among the 25 per cent of poorest regions in the EU. Hardly surprising then, that it has taken over twenty years to recover.
All this has resulted in what sociologist Sharon Zukin has described as “pacification by cappuccino”: the creation of neutralised yet increasingly gentrified spaces in Belfast, such as the Cathedral Quarter, that are a marked departure from its more traditional working class roots. Such sites of cross-community integration have also provided a distraction for investors and tourists from the less than desirable legacy of tension. This revitalisation is evident in the development of modern buildings such as the Waterfront Hall, SSE Arena and the Mac Theatre.
It’s clear that Belfast is an up and coming tourist destination. Yet the underlying reality is that history is coded in the very infrastructure of the city. If Belfast is to truly move forward, then the past must remain exactly that – the past.
Recent dismantling of a peace wall in West Belfast – one of the areas most affected by the Troubles – is a positive step towards greater community unity. With the spread of new ideas among younger generations, it’s time to make the most important investment of all – in one another.