Belfast is home to the contentious event.
It is not an rare occurrence for our media to report a freshly made batch of “outrage” from the bitter bakeries of Belfast’s lingering “divide”.
We are used to this, it is usually surrounding parades passing through the city where someone has decided they’re not supposed to.
However this week an event took place which raised an interesting kind of contention.
Culture Night once again graced the city centre of Belfast. Usually when I hear the word “culture” being uttered with reference to an event here, I run for my camera so I can take bad photographs of the PSNI’s immaculate ring of steel which secures the city centre in anticipation of chaos.
However this was not the case for this particular kind of culture. There were no single-drumbeat rulings from the Parades Commission or counter-protests organised. As I entered Belfast in the morning, I found the Cathedral Quarter and its surrounding streets bustling with activity. Volunteers of all ages pushed bins along streets to discourage littering. Along Donegall Street, instead of steel walls being constructed, a table was being set up which stretched the length of the street. Stages were raised, artists carrying rucksacks full of spray-paint surveyed their bricked canvases and Belfast’s pubs and restaurants prepared themselves for what was going to be a hectic night.
Culture Night involved tens of thousands coming into the city centre for over 250 events. One which involved feeding 5000 from a gigantic pot of curry and one which involved two women saying “I do” in front of a crowd of thousands roaring their support.
There was no sectarian slant to this and it wasn’t marked by a specific set of flags or songs. Songs performed were by local bands, choirs and buskers for free to anyone who listened. The new murals did not involve masked men holding guns but rather a bearded chef holding a lobster. Free events which were free of sectarian taint took place in a shared space in the heart of the city for all to enjoy.
The criticism I had noticed being made referenced Newton Emerson’s quip that Culture Night is the “Middle Class Twelfth”; that hipsters and middle class socialites descend on the artsy Cathedral Quarter to enjoy “middle class snobbery”. Others referenced that it did not provide adequate voice to activists and working class organisations. These criticisms may well be fair, I feel an expansion across the city to include more activists and working class community organisations would only add to the event.
However discussing this raises a point that I can’t help but feel happy about; that the criticism surrounding this event is not about the sectarian divide, it’s about pretentious, bearded hipsters drinking craft beers and watching someone chalk an 8 armed dinosaur on a blackboard outside The National. I for one can’t help but feel immensely proud of Belfast when tens of thousands of us can join together to celebrate culture in a way which doesn’t involve some kind of reference to warfare or create a huge police overtime bill. Where working class, middle class, catholic, protestant, bearded hipster and whatever you call a normal not-hipster person can stand together in the streets of our city and raise a plastic cup to it. The Culture Night team, its volunteers and sponsors put together an event which united a city known for its division and showcased our talents and passion in a way which earns it the insult of “pretentious” instead of “sectarian”. I for one welcome that and extend to them my awe and gratitude and extend to the others who do not feel the same the traditional defence for contentious events: respect our culture.
Brendan Harkin is a legal analyst and amateur photographer. He regularly comments on Twitter about NI politics as @brendanjharkin much to the disgust of everyone else and sometimes posts bad photographs to make up for it.