Speaking to me last night about the transformative effect of the Tall Ships visiting Belfast back in 1991, Sir Richard Needham reflected on Belfast today in 2017.
“I’m very worried about it now” as “it’s starting to miss out on all sorts of fantastic opportunities”. He compares Belfast with Bristol (a city close to his old constituency).
“Bristol now has half the number of kids on free school meals that Belfast has, so that gives you an indication of the difference in wealth between the two cities. Bristol is now one of the most exciting, forward-looking, smart cities of the 21st century and Belfast is hobbling along a long way behind. And that’s not because it doesn’t have people who are clever or enthusiastic within the City Council [but] it doesn’t have a government.”
He highlighted the layers of government – MPs, Stormont, Belfast Council and the surrounding councils.
“What Belfast requires in my view is it needs a metropolitan mayor, which is quite difficult because of the problems of power sharing. But you could need somebody with a cabinet who has major responsibility. Belfast should be part of the northern powerhouse. If you look now at what’s happening in places like Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol and Manchester, Belfast is in real danger of being left behind.
“Although having said that, it is still an incredible city. It’s still got wonderful life and vitality. It’s got very bright young people … Belfast should be aiming to become a world class city, but if it doesn’t have the right imagination and leadership it’s very difficult to see how that’s going to happen.”
But he says that Direct Rule is “absolutely not” the answer.
“They’d be frightened of upsetting anybody so they wouldn’t do anything, I don’t think that’s the solution at all. I think Brexit is an utter disaster. It’s a disaster more for the island of Ireland than it is for the English but the English have shot themselves in every part of their anatomy and they’re going to have to live with the consequences. It is not good news.
“And the politicians in Northern Ireland are playing party politics and that does not help the economic social development of the city. It’s easy for me to say that because I’m not a politician in Northern Ireland, but that’s the reality.”