Monday, September 11, 2017

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Big Wheels Keep On Turning….

Steven Are reports on a recent visit back to the North.

A fortunate turn of events meant that a project I was working on finished early, and I was able to squeeze a visit to back home in, for the first time in years. Much to the ire of Irish mother’s everywhere, I’d been a prodigal son who was not as ‘in touch’ as the original ‘She who must be obeyed’ would have liked!

Travelling around this planet to various far-flung places I have developed a barometer of sorts to gauge the economic health of the city/state I am visiting. I can usually tell if the place is prospering or not by the amount of construction going on, specifically, the amount of cranes erecting new buildings on the skyline. Forget the austerity crap that the MSM try to sell you: if there is profit to be made Capital will sniff it out and, like a shark with blood in the water, be ruthless in its pursuit.

So it was with some pleasant surprise to see Belfast had changed quite dramatically in the almost twenty years I’d been away. I can still remember the waste land that used to sit behind the Oxford Street bus station, which has now long gone, and which has now been replaced with multi-national Tech companies. The Law Courts are unrecognisable from what I remember them to be, which was basically heavily fortified army sangers on either side.

But it was the little things that really stuck out. I took a dander with my wife and weans around the City to find restaurants with table and chairs sitting outside for patrons. This seems innocuous and is commonplace most everywhere else but it sure as hell wasn’t an option in the 80’s!

My wife who is not a native was a bit bemused at my wandering around like a lost tourist gawking at everything. Can’t blame her: this was not the Belfast I was expecting. The demography appears to have changed somewhat too. When I left the population was 99% Anglo with 1% Chinese and I still have Chinese schoolmates I keep in touch with. Now Belfast is becoming in keeping with most other European cities and the diversity of ethnicities is on show.

Never more apparent than when we stopped for lunch on the Dublin Road. As we walked past a ‘European Café’ we were greeted by the sight of three elderly possible Greek guys smoking roll ups and drinking coffee. They gave me the evil eye as if I was the interloper and I couldn’t help but let out a snort of laughter. They definitely weren’t about back in the day!

But it is the Fear Factor or rather the lack of it which surprised me the most. I spoke to several taxi drivers who were known as “Dial a victim” in my youth. They all reported that no longer are they afraid for their lives, and that the young of Belfast are much more interested in just getting on with enjoying life than was the case over a decade ago.

This was clear to me by a soppy feel-good moment, when I took my kids to a park and noticed GAA tops mingling happily with NI tops. I’m not naive enough to think that all the ills of the past have just evaporated, but I did have a moment of reflection when I noticed young teenagers of the opposite sex and political persuasion flirting with each other. Undoubtedly a great thing in my eyes.

This chain of events led me wonder about the future. With an expanding middle class becoming obvious is a “United Ireland” closer?

I can honestly say I did not notice any border whatsoever between Down and Louth. I can say the road was bloody busy though.

The Loyalists I spoke to seemed to speak fondly of visiting the South and how they had even made friends down there while on holiday in Spain, going so far as to arrange catch ups when back home.

Perhaps time mellows even the fiercest of beasts. It is very uncertain times we live in but I can foresee no situation where the UK wants a ‘Hard Border’ with the Republic. And with the gradual mingling of the youth perhaps a ‘United Ireland’ will exist in everything but name.

After all, what good would come if the people are divided?


frankie said...


You must have walked through Belfast with sun galsses, were very drumk or simply didnt look beyond the bottom of your latte that you probably bought in one of the many Cafe Neros dotted around the Belfast city centre/Botanic area.

Like you I also left Belfast and the island and ended up with a non planned self imposed exile. Mine was for 27ys. When I came back to the island last July and made a bee line for Belfast. Like you I was shocked but not for the same reasons.

Belfast today is in a bigger mess today than anytime since the Troubles. Unlike you, I didnt fall for the papering over the cracks bollicks. They can build as many hotels and retail parks as they want. They can be blown up just as quick. Lets face it, we are both old enought to remember Belfast looking like the cross betwwen a car park and one massive building site due to the bombing campaign, one the whole by the Provisionals.

Why didnt you mention the young peole "goofing out" in Donegal Place/City Hall?

Steve R said...


It is a fair comment, I really didn't see any kids 'goofing out' (drugs?) around the City Hall but then again the place was full of tourists.

My point is there appears to be a greater mingling of the children from both sides, which could only be a good thing.

Not sure why you would want to blow up hotels and retail parks frankie, especially when the vast majority have no interest in such acts.

Perhaps it says more about your self-imposed exile than it does about the reality for the people of Belfast.

Niall said...

Don’t be fooled by what you see and hear. There is a state mantra that is often repeated to the point where it becomes valueless and irritating. The recent local and Westminster elections clearly demonstrated just how divided this place is.
The city fathers continue to spout the much clichéd statements of the peace process, cultural respect, parity of esteem and the children are our future, valueless statements, especially when they themselves are every bit the practising draconian sectarian racist bigot.
There is a lot of cosmetics being used in Belfast to hide the reality. Yes, the people are content that the violence of the past has subsided but there is still violence although no-where on the same scale as before.
It is a divided city and as divided as it ever was.
As it pathetically tries to sell itself internationally as a cosmopolitan city it flounders on its own sectarian racist petard by its conspicuous prejudices.

Hotels don’t make a city and the political surgeons are very busy here with their cosmetic surgeries!
As for the future, there really is no internal solution to NI. The knuckle draggers have seen to that.

Henry JoY said...

Like the guys I recently spent some time in Belfast after a long absence. Myself and my partner and two of her grandchildren, thanks to Air b&b, stayed a couple of days and nights in the salubrious environs of Malone Park and did the tourist thing around the city centre visiting some of the new attractions.

What I saw during that limited and admittedly closeted experienced was a far cry from those memories I have from Autumn 1976 and the spring of 1977 when I resided last in the city. Whilst I don't strongly disagree with Frankie's observations I could counter that, as with any metropolis, life is lived at many different levels by its varying and disparate citizens.

Certainly at a surface level, its a world away from what I remember of my time spent there forty years ago. And whatever about what might still exist beneath the surface, the city projects a more hopeful, vibrant and progressive feel than it did in those dark strife-torn days.
Sure some of the old currents still flow but not with the same intensity and certainly not with the same ferocity that led to the senseless maiming and almost daily deaths that occurred way back then. This achievement, I'd contend, is one to be welcomed and celebrated and definitively not something to be minimised.

All in all, my sense after my visit is that the situation has been turned and turned significantly for the better. What I witnessed is whats to be seen in any community, people trying to get on with it; with some making a good fist of it and others making a hames of it!

Steve R said...


Perhaps, but like HJ I found a marked change from what it used to be. I certainly did not detect a sense of fear that once was palpable across the city. No troops on the street, and oddly only one or two cop cars knocking about. As I said in piece, I'm not daft enough to think my individual experience was all enveloping but the change was marked.

I don't particularly think there is a 'solution' to NI and its woes, but as sure as hell think the mixing of our youth is a good place to start. And as I said, what's 'United' about an United Ireland if the people are divided?

Niall said...

Steve R,
You’re 100% right, there is a change here and it is for the better but it is purely cosmetic Steve. It isn’t real. Palpable fear has been replaced with palpable disquiet.
There never was a single unitary people here so why try to imply that there ever was and can be? Living here at times is very like the Truman some point someone is going to bang in to the edge and realise what a farce it is.

Steve R said...


What I actually can see happening is a vast increase in immigrants attracted by the soft border to the UK. Belfast is changing but far faster than people will think.