Belfast: a tale of two cities

Rebranding Orange parades as ‘Orangefest’ and scrubbing murals off the walls cannot disguise the divisions that still exist in Belfast.

Kevin Rooney

Topics World

The new Belfast comes in six colours: blue, grey, maroon, fuchsia, lime and aqua.

Less controversial than the London 2012 Olympics logo, the new logo for Belfast city has none the less generated acres of media coverage and comment. The result of a 12-month ‘rebranding’ exercise by a London advertising agency, the heart-shaped design doubles as the letter B, allowing for a series of promotional slogans: ‘B here now’, ‘B vibrant’ and ‘B dynamic’.

Strikingly, the lack of any tinges of orange and green – the colours of Ulster Protestantism and Irish republicanism – reinforce the fact that this is the New Belfast, a million miles from the political traditions that are now seen as a scar on this ’happening’ city.

It’s not just the logo that’s new. The traditional 12 July Orange marches, organised by the Orange Order to commemorate the victory of Protestant King Billy over the Catholic King James in 1690, have also been rebranded. This annual display of Protestant supremacy once led Catholics to flee the city, as loyalists carried anti-Catholic banners, made anti-Catholic speeches and roared out anti-Catholic tunes.

This year, however, the Orange Order has received generous government grants to turn the sectarian highlight of its year into an ‘Orangefest’, a cultural festival which will be more appealing to tourists and ‘other communities’. The Irish Tourist Board has promoted Orangefest as a ‘must-see’ attraction, and the BBC ran hours of recorded highlights akin to its coverage of something like the Notting Hill carnival.

‘It’s all about making the 12 July parades more welcoming’, says Drew Nelson, the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, by way of explaining why the traditional mascot of Orangemen wearing bowler hats and sashes has been replaced by a cartoon superhero called ‘Diamond Dan’.

The British government is thrilled with the ‘New Belfast’ and the new-style Orange marches, and has committed substantial new funds for a series of initiatives building on the ‘re-imaging’ of Protestant heritage. One project funded by the Northern Ireland Arts Council is spearheading a drive to paint over the loyalist paramilitary wall murals that are so reminiscent of the ‘old Belfast’. Under the direction of the ‘Re-Imaging Communities Programme’, graphic depictions of historical battle scenes and loyalist gunmen will be replaced by Belfast’s more acceptable protégés: footballer George Best, scenes from Narnia (CS Lewis was born in Belfast), and images of the Titanic (which was built here).

So is there really a new Belfast, or is this all an elaborate piece of spin? The truth is that, in many ways, there are now two Belfasts. The vibrant, dynamic, happening city represented in the new logo is to some extent a reality in the city centre, where regular visitors are struck by the thriving new restaurant scene, nightlife, new buildings and glossy shopping malls. Central Belfast is taking its place alongside other European cities. It was here in the shiny new city centre that the sanitised Orangefest could take place, applauded by foreign tourists and introduced by First Minister Peter Robinson as an ‘inter-cultural community festival’.

However, less than five minutes outside the city centre, the old Belfast and its more familiar ‘inter-cultural activities’ reared their ugly head in the early hours of 12 July, away from the media gaze.

Barely reported in the British media, there were riots between Catholic and Protestant youths in several parts of the city; police reported being called out to 49 ‘incidents’ related to the 12 July bonfires. Petrol bombs were thrown and hospital injuries and arrests were in double figures.

The violence should not have come as a surprise to those prepared to look beyond the glossy PR and political rhetoric. Numerous loyalist websites have attacked the rebranding of their traditional anti-Catholic activities and pledged to have nothing to do with the sanitised version of 12 July. At one of the parades in Ballyclare, Stephen Dickinson, former Deputy Grandmaster of the Orange Order, spoke for many loyalists when he said: ‘I notice that [some Unionist leaders] have been saying in recent days that we’re all about cultural tourism. This is about Protestantism, this is about Britishness. It’s not about cultural tourism.’

Despite promoting the Orangefest in its editorials, the Belfast Newsletter’s predominantly Unionist readership made clear in letters to the paper that Catholics were not welcome at ‘Orangefest’ celebrations. They needn’t have worried. A survey of West Belfast’s Catholic community revealed that there is no prospect of this multicultural charade becoming a real intercommunity activity anytime soon.

It isn’t just the trouble on 12 July that testifies to a different reality behind the new government-funded cultural celebrations. Numerous academic reports in recent years have suggested that working-class communities in Belfast have become more sectarian since the peace process heralded the end of the 25-year war. The fact that the huge, imposing ‘peace walls’ dividing Catholic and Protestant communities now have paintings of smiling children on them does not take away form the fact that more such walls have been erected in recent years.

Last year Peter Shirlow of Queen’s University published a shocking report revealing a picture of working-class Catholics and Protestants who, more than ever before, live, socialise and pursue different sporting activities in complete isolation from each other. Local papers in Belfast report violent sectarian incidents every weekend, with young men often beaten to within an inch of their lives after straying into the ‘wrong’ areas. Official police reports record an average of 30 sectarian incidents per week.

These reports raise the question of whether the central theme of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process more broadly – to ‘celebrate difference’ and ‘respect separate identities’ – has actually done more to entrench sectarian differences rather than overcome them. Politicians choosing to celebrate and institutionalise one of the most vile displays of anti-Catholic supremacy – 12 July – rather than let it fade into history shows just how perverse the political outlook is in the ‘New Northern Ireland’.

None of the makeovers, rebranding and re-imaging can hide the fact that Belfast is a fractured city with two realities. The shiny new city centre looks outwards to Europe and a positive future as a thriving, sophisticated, non-sectarian city; this is the Belfast that now appears in the national and international media and is the subject of a huge and influential PR operation by government officials, the Arts Council and others. But this re-imaged Belfast has one major problem – the old Belfast just won’t go away, and while you are unlikely to read it in the news any time soon, loyalist areas are still festooned with Union Jacks and paramilitary symbols. The image consultants and PR men have failed to erase this awkward reality.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school, and is co-producing the debate ‘The Troubles, 1968-2008: Revising Irish History?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in November.

Previously on spiked

Kevin Rooney attacked a journalistic tendency to depoliticise the war in Northern Ireland. Michael Fitzpatrick explained how the left betrayed Ireland’s ’68. Brendan O’Neill saw in the Paisley and Adams power-sharing deal the ghosts of politics past. Elsewhere he questioned why Bloody Sunday has gained so much recent attention and said the annual Orange men’s ‘Battle of Drumcree’ is pure pantomime. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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