Onward and upward despite tough trading times
The city is also attracting increasingly large international conferences and functions. The World Police and Fire Games will take place in August next year which means about 8,000 to 10,000 athletes staying in Belfast. Moreover, high-end shopping at Victoria Square, stylish hotels like the Fitzwilliam, vibrant nightlife and new additions to the cityscape and you have a city more tourists are choosing to visit.
Despite all the positivity, residents are quick to say that the bad old days are not entirely behind Belfast. It still doesn’t take much for trouble to flare up. There is concern about the effect the Twelfth fortnight in July has on trade. Provocative marches around St Patrick’s Church commemorating the Ulster Covenant were another cause for alarm recently.
And for Seán Kelly, director of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, two recent events in particular compounded his view that Belfast politics is still informed by a deeply held conservatism. Controversy surrounding the newly opened Marie Stopes clinic and the defeat of the motion on same-sex marriage were events that “left our politicians fairly wanting . . . the mainstream parties didn’t want to touch either issue”. For Kelly, the reaction of politicians to these kinds of issues are a barometer of how far the city still has to go.
Joris Minne, PR consultant and restaurant reviewer for the Belfast Telegraph, agrees.
“From what I see the politicians are more and more out of step with ordinary people who have a lot more savvy than the people in charge . . . I think Belfast City Council are an exception to this. They’ve just embarked on an . . . investment programme in the city without raising the rates by a penny.”
Minne lived away from the city from the late 1970s to the early 1990s but now says that despite small “pockets of toxicity”, when it comes to raising children and enjoying a decent quality of life “Belfast is hard to beat”.
“Are we the finished article?” asks Gerry Lennon, pondering the future of the city. “Absolutely not. But we have moved on significantly and the trick is to make tourism, this new wealth generator and job generator, to make it a more attractive product . . . we need to come up with new reasons for them to visit. The Titanic centre . . . is a marketer’s dream so we need more of that kind of thing. We’re working on it. Our message is that there’s never been a better time to visit Belfast.”