We need urgent action to save the historic Belfast Assembly Rooms…

John Gray is Chair of Reclaim the Enlightenment and Convenor of the Assembly Rooms Alliance.

Readers may have noticed a recent flurry of publicity with regard to Belfast’s historic Assembly Rooms. Now an online petition at https://chng.it/TQbMwYjdgj has been launched demanding that the powers that be ‘Safeguard and reclaim Belfast’s historic Assembly Rooms for public use.’ Why the fuss? Why should you sign?

The Assembly Rooms are to Belfast what Leinster House and the Guildhall are to Dublin and London respectively. No one would dare propose that they should be converted into boutique hotels or allowed to fall into dangerous dereliction. That is precisely what developers, Castlebrooke, have achieved for our Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is the city’s most historic building. Originally built as a single storey market house in 1769 an additional storey was added in 1776 transforming it into the Assembly Rooms. As such it lay at the very centre of the eighteenth century town.

It was also central to the cultural life of the town during its enlightenment era. It was the venue for the famous Harp Festival of 1792, the defeat of the proposal to set up a Belfast based slave trading company, the foundation of the Ballast Board, forerunner of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, and for the court martials of United Irish prisoners, including Henry Joy McCracken, at the time of the 1798 rebellion.

It was converted into a bank in 1845 in work undertaken by Belfast’s most celebrated nineteenth century architect, Charles Lanyon. That has left us with the legacy of a magnificent banking hall.

The bank closed in 2000 and the building has been vacant ever since. Despite its grade B1 listing it had to be placed on the ‘at risk’ register in 2003. Even in deteriorating condition it was used in the early years of this millennium by theatre companies, for concerts, and exhibitions, an indication of its future potential if only it can be saved.

In 2008 well known artist, Brian Vallelly held a major retrospective exhibition there. He reflects;

All the time I was conscious of the privilege it was for me to have such a venue to hang my paintings. I don’t think anyone of the thousands who eventually visited during the two months or more the exhibition was in place could have left without thinking what an architectural gem we had in Belfast. When the harpers came in to play we were transported back to 1792 and the Belfast Harp Festival.

I was convinced that having restored the building and let people see what had lain under the grime and dereliction that the powers that be would have continued the work I had started at my own expense and fully restored this wonderful building as a permanent cultural centre for Belfast, Ireland and the world.

Imagine my disappointment and distress when I visited a short time later seeing the building left to sink once again into dereliction once my exhibition was over.

Since then more recently I’ve stood outside and almost cried. The plaque commemorating 1792 is barely visible these days.

Surely Belfast can do better.

Latterly the Assembly Rooms became part of the wider Tribeca project promoted by developers, Castlebrooke. They proposed that this historic building should become a boutique hotel, in any case a truly inappropriate use

As with the rest of the properties embraced by the Tribeca scheme nothing has been done. Instead according to a survey undertaken in January of this year the Assembly Rooms are now in a close to catastrophic condition with dry rot rampant and water ingress accelerating the destruction. As the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society says; ‘ It is shocking that such an architecturally important and historically significant building … can come to be treated as a mere derelict eye sore.’

The City Council should use its powers immediately to intervene to ensure that remedial action is taken.

Castlebrooke are in the process of submitting an application for renewal of their existing planning permission. Given their failure to date this must not be passed on the nod.

Far better that Castlebrooke should donate the Assembly Rooms to the people of Belfast.

Failing that the City Council may come to the rescue. They have indicated an intention to acquire the Assembly Rooms sooner rather than later whether by vesting or by purchase. This is a welcome development provided that they pursue appropriate future uses for the building.

If the Council fails to act then others of us will seek to act independently.

This campaign to save the Assembly Rooms for appropriate public use has been mounted by the Assembly Rooms Alliance which was established in February 2023 with the objective ‘to preserve the Assembly Rooms and to secure them for public use as a facility for arts and heritage purposes and for other community uses.’ Those involved include a range of cultural organisations, potential users of the building, and individuals with particular expertise.

The Alliance has developed proposals for the future use of the building and as follows;

  1. The Banking Hall.

This is a particularly fine space at the front of the building dating from the 19th century conversion of the building into a bank. It is capable of accommodating an audience of up to 300.

This should provide a semi-permanent display on the remarkable history of the building,

Use of the space on an ad hoc basis by a variety of cultural organisations in the early years of this millennium indicated its future potential.

This arena should provide a multi-purpose venue for cultural, arts, and community events. These might include concerts, conferences, drama, exhibitions, lectures etc/ etc. It would also serve as tour venue.

In fulfilling this role it would also be true to the multi-cultural and enlightened uses of the building in its early history.

  1. The rest of the building.

Extensive accommodation lies behind the Banking Hall.

Our current proposal is that this should accommodate the proposed Museum of the Troubles and Peace. This enlightened vision has a wide range of distinguished supporters. It is one that will avoid the perils of any single overarching narrative. Rather it will provide a multi-faceted experience for visitors to explore and to reach their own informed conclusions.

Surely more than a quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement was signed we should be able to address in a comprehensive way this crucial aspect of our history. It cannot be left forevermore to the black taxis! Of course there will be those who will ask ‘How can you guarantee neutrality?’ In fact none of us are neutral but w can guarantee that we will address the task without fear or favour.

MoTaP will certainly provide the opportunity for an in depth experience for our own communities but it will also attract visitors from afar.

It is noteworthy that Conor Murphy, Minister for the Economy, in addressing the recent annual conference of Tourism NI, highlighted the tourism potential of exploring our conflict and our journey to peace saying, ‘Many people want to learn more about our political history.’

So support the campaign to save our Assembly Rooms and give them an enlightened public future.

Do sign our petition! You can do so here: https://chng.it/TQbMwYjdgj

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