St Patricks Day. Getting better, but more work to do…

St Patrick’s Day in Belfast used to have a reputation for being a damp squib. Festivities were normally confined to the West; even then, the parades were small affairs.

I can’t remember when parades first started entering the city centre—maybe in the late 1990s or early naughties? There was the usual Unionist wailing and gnashing of teeth about ‘Republican hoards taking over the city centre’, but after a few years, things settled down. But it was never the most family-friendly of events. There were lots of teenage drinkers wrapped in flags. For balance reasons, I should point out that you see similar sites during the Twelfth, only drunk teenagers wrapped up in another flag.

Somewhere along the line, the council got involved and started to make the festivities more family-friendly. They were able to pump some money into the parade and start getting decent floats. There was also a good effort to involve various community and arts groups from all over Belfast. And from tiny acorns, the parade has now blossomed into a decent enough affair.

I brought Junior down to see the parade yesterday, and there was a sizable crowd all along the route. I am terrible at estimating crowds, but if I had to pick a number, I would say 30-50,000. The parade took about 30 minutes to pass. There is no match for the 2 hours and 30 minutes it takes the Dublin parade to pass, but frankly, you can have too much of a good thing.

This year, we even got a pile of yanks. The Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh came all the way from New Jersey. Sure, they look like something out of Family Guy, but they are here staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and drinking in our pub, so a hearty welcome to all.

So the parade is getting better, but Ireland’s second city does not embrace the full potential of St Patrick’s Day. There is a lot of potential to do a lot more. As some of our new American friendly sons might say ‘we are leaving money on the table’.

The council needs to involve the arts sector more in the festivities. You can’t do culture by committee. Managers can’t tender for craic. Worse, Belfast City Council has been accused of being deliberately shambolic over the funding and preparations for the parade.

Here is how you fund arts events. You give them a pile of cash with sensible timescales, then you feck off and leave them alone to get on with it.

There was some further good news in that the Holylands were peaceful (unlike the actual Holylands). So well done to Queens, Ulster and the various community groups and businesses for knocking that annual orgy of bad behaviour on the head.

Admit all the talk of Washington boycotts, politicians jetting off left right and centre, when it comes down to it St Patrick’s Day is a massive PR boost to Ireland North And South. We need to get with the programme and fully embrace the potential for all our benefits.

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