Before Xchange Summer School: What quarters make your Belfast?

Next week will see the doors opening on this year’s Xchange Summer School and the start of conversations including a section of the event set aside to consider whether Belfast is a “City of Seven Quarters”.

The event, through a panel discussion taking stock of the buildings around us in Belfast 2016, is likely to look at issues such as heritage versus the economic benefits of new buildings and well as the impact of conflict not to mention ask if buildings such as the new Ulster University construction are an eyesore or a landmark.

For me, a useful exercise when thinking about what Belfast has become and what I would want for its future is to consider the ‘quarters’ which make up the city I love and the city I hope generations ahead will be able to enjoy for the same reasons.

Both of us self-confessed fans of our modern city and the thread of old Belfast running through it, I recently wrote a short story for my partner full of loving references to the Strand Cinema, the Linen Hall library and even the small things like the old Clarke’s Dance Studios sign next to the Irish News. Re-running the story replacing these places with words like multiplex, library van and student flats brings into focus the importance of subject being discussed next week.

A personal and unapologetically rose-tinted and music-themed look – then – at the seven quarters which make up my Belfast and form the pillars of the city I’d want the next generations to have the chance explore:-

* Youth: On a recent walk through Cornmarket one evening I saw a young female hip-hop fan and her friends gathered around a microphone and mobile PA speaker. She started to rap; changing the tone and feel of the streets around her while tourists and locals stopped to show encouragement. The scenario made me fill with pride at what Belfast has become. It was a small sign of a confident city with confident young people, perhaps even the type of scene we might have associated with cities abroad until now. Unfairly, of course: the work of Terri Hooley and his punk generation as well as the development of Belfast’s rave scene in the 1990s – when young people ignored Northern Ireland’s labels and carved their own lifestyle – have always been a credit to the city. My point? The Cornmarket, the Ulster Hall and even the Mandela Hall are as important to those who grew these scenes as the life they gave the city (whether we were fans or not) is important as part of the past and backbone of Belfast today. There are now no fewer than two urban sports facilities in Belfast and a music scene standing tall in comparison to many of the cities around us. The places of Belfast young people and their stories should be treated and shared with the same importance as the bricks of City Hall or Queens’s itself. After all, those stories could be seen around the world in years to come.

* Heritage: I’m told a common joke among local sun-seekers of a certain age is that they are on a ’skiing’ holiday, i.e. ‘spending the kids’ inheritance’. The phrase was in my mind as I watched the Orpheus building being pulled down and counted the protest stickers on lampposts blaming Ulster University with a UU-style logo and slogan: “U destroy OUR city”. It also applied, with a more modern target, to the much-maligned plans to flatten the Sunflower Bar and spoke of a certain ‘enough is enough’ feeling among local people to the destruction of buildings, old and new, which help Belfast stand apart from some of the generic high streets found in cities elsewhere. Small things like the attempted removal of the doorway cage from the Sunflower or former talk of destroying the Mandela Hall show how fragile this can be.


* Pride: A food tour now held in Belfast has enjoyed great demand while I have seen a queue at St George’s Market stalls belonging to the likes of Deborah Toner, who sells Irish linen stitch-work pieces celebrating the buildings of Belfast and Northern Ireland. A new range of Belfast-branded watches appear to be doing a roaring trade while the tourism office along from the Linen Hall Library is filled with unique products marking Northern Ireland’s architecture, language and creative industries. New drinks brands are being launched – like Jawbox Gin and the rebirth of Dunville’s Belfast Whiskey – and are starting to slowly change the look of shop shelves around us. A different sense of pride in Belfast has not only grown but has grown into a marketable brand attractive to tourists and local people alike. This sense of identity and place seems part of the fabric of Belfast 2016 and beyond.

* People: While – say – Victoria Square holds an attraction of one type, the banter of a Belfast barber or a St George’s Market trader, or the familiarity of an old Belfast cafe, help towards the friendliest city praise lauded on Belfast and seem part of the DNA of our sense of our city. There are only so many international brands and chain pubs/ cafes, if opened at the cost of an existing business, this balance can take.

* Arts: On a Sunday morning street art tours are held to show off and explain the thriving, organic, high-quality street art scene which has grown in Belfast since the days of “Cheap donkeys, discount zebras”. On any given night there could be four or five venues with theatre shows and countless more if live music is counted too. Festivals being held in the city seem to run one into the next (the city’s Secret Cabaret events have a wide pool of talent to draw from for such a small city by population) while, as a filming location, Northern Ireland attracts productions from around the world.

* Those from the box marked ‘other’: As Eamonn McCann would tell householders when doorstepping in Derry: “…we are neither Orange or Green”. Neither was Terri Hooley when the Belfast punk scene caught the eye of those beyond Northern Ireland and neither are the new MLAs joining those more neatly boxed and labelled, in our traditional Northern Ireland sense, in Stormont. While there is profit to be made and demand to be met in showing peace walls and murals to tourists, the contribution of those outside the assumed main two labels cannot be forgotten and shouldn’t be understated. While I would never wave aside the issues of and experiences of those living in interface areas, selling Belfast as a divided city while ignoring a city centre packed with people who have barely seem a peace wall, may well not even vote, probably don’t go to church and have little time for the troubled past seems a mis-selling of the wider nature of our city in 2016.

* Tourism: In my humble opinion the Belfast we want to show our guests is made up of a blend of tourism and the other six ‘quarters’ I’ve outlined above. Wetherspoons and Hugo Boss shops and student flats can be found in many cities, are very welcome and have their place, but it is our our ‘old’ Belfast, our proud welcome, our banter, and our arts combined in the right way with our modern Belfast that have impressed the guide books and drawn tourist coaches and cruise ships towards us to help celebrate what we have become.

While the how and why of Belfast will be debated next week, this is my ‘what’ of our city.

The Belfast of my youth was a big village. Issues such as our licensing laws and reportedly high rates for small businesses aside, it is now starting to stand proud in the global village. It is up to those responsible for how Belfast continues to take its physical shape to keep the right balance of old and new, unique and generic, alive. The city myself and my partner, and many other local people like us, want to pass on to our grandchildren is ours to lose if poor decisions are made.

In the worlds of Terri Hooley: “When It comes to punk: New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason!”

Good luck to those gathering next week to discuss what we now do with it.

* Xchange Summer School, part of the Xchange – Developing Leaders and Change Makers project is co-ordinated by Chief Officers 3rd Sector (CO3) and will be held on Thursday 16th and Friday 17th June. Guests include Peter Tatchell and Slugger’s Mick Fealty. Past speakers include Adrian Dunbar, Ann Travers and Nigel Owens. Topics also being explored are: Towards Societal Well Being; Faith, Spirituality and Mind Body Practices (their contribution to the transformation of our society) and; Hacking Democracy.

* Photo by Cormac Campbell (@CC_TheDetail)

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at