Friday week ago was Culture Night in Belfast. Around 40,000 people milled across the city centre, enjoying bands, magicians, wrestling, stilt-walkers, drumming circles, group meditation on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral, face-painting, dancing, story telling from around the world, caricaturists, science experiments, burgers and beer.
It was a wonderful evening. Family groups ranging in age from pram-pushed babies to great-grandparents. Men, women, children, Protestant, Catholic, atheist, black, white, brown, Irish, British, American, French, Jamaican.
And the predominant sound of the night was the sound of laughter and the exchange of quiet pleasantries. People smiling at each other as they moved back to allow the little ones a better view of an event. People swapping cameras and taking photographs of strangers. Laughing in queues with people they had never met before.
This was a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Belfast at its very best: and clearly at its most relaxed. A Belfast through which Richard Haass, Mairtin O Muilleoir and an assortment of journalists and politicians could pass with a nod and a handshake. This was a sharing Belfast. A Belfast in which parents weren’t worried about darkness falling and getting the kids back to the safety of their ‘own area’. This was a Belfast a million miles away from the gloominess of a recent poll which suggested that over 60 per cent predicted a future which included economic decline, a possible return to Troubles-era violence or, at best, ongoing stalemate at the heart of government.
Yet a few hundred yards from the fun and spontaneous interaction of Culture Night some of us were also aware of a bomb scare in the Markets area. Just above the buzz of excitement and babble of contentment we could hear the persistent drone of a helicopter: a helicopter that was clearly keeping an eye on a potential problem on the ground. It was there for hours, circling and hovering – a niggling, annoying little reminder that 40,000 people having fun didn’t mean that Belfast was yet a ‘normal’ city.
The following day a few thousand more people gathered outside the City Hall. They too wanted to celebrate and parade and mingle with friends and family. Yet theirs was an exclusive, excluding event. It was an event that required 600 PSNI officers and water cannon. It was an event that worried traders, raised tensions and kept unknown numbers of shoppers away from the city for a few key hours on the busiest trading day of the week. It wasn’t multi-cultural, multi-national or multi-ethnic. It was, in fact, the reverse. It was thousands of people who believed that their culture, identity and core beliefs were under threat.
So there you are: within 24 hours two cultural events in Belfast’s city centre, both of which gave an entirely different, mutually contradictory impression of the place.
One indicating that people want to share and mix and celebrate diversity: the other indicating that a significant section of Belfast’s population (and don’t let the lesser numbers fool you – many in the unionist/loyalist community share the concerns) feel that their part of the diversity is being sidelined and undermined. Indeed, Arlene Foster argued that Belfast mustn’t become a ‘cold house for protest’.
Is there any way in which these two opposites can be brought together? Well, if you look at the success of Culture Night, the Gay Pride parade and the Mela Festival, it is clear that new non-political celebrations are passing off peacefully and attracting increasing numbers. And that suggests that there is a market for change. People want Belfast to be a ‘normal’ city: even those people who sound pessimistic in the polls want it to be ‘normal’.
But how can it be ‘normal’ when the media still reports tensions and riots. How can it be ‘normal’ when you can hear the collective sigh of relief as a television reporter states – as one did on Saturday – that ‘the Ulster Day parade has passed off peacefully’? How can it be ‘normal’ when we say, after something like Culture Night, ‘why can’t it always be like this’?
But the problem with Belfast is that the political turf war is intensifying. The fact that they no longer have a majority at council or Assembly level is spooking and unsettling unionism: and when unionism is spooked it tends to turn on itself and then take to the streets.
There’s a section of unionism which, rather than ask why it has lost seats, becomes pointlessly triumphalist and nostalgic. And there’s a section of republicanism which is always ready to play on those fears.
Belfast is clearly big enough to be shared. There is room – and there will always be room – for unionism. But that means that unionism needs to present itself in a less belligerent, more inclusive manner. It needs to learn to promote a culture which is part, but not the only part of the core of Northern Ireland’s history. People like to party. They like to see something new and different, something which doesn’t scare or unsettle them: something that’s actually a part of their heritage, too.
A sharing, confident, inclusive unionism has nothing to fear. Nothing to fear from the sort of people who go to Culture Night events: and nothing to fear from that element of republicanism which likes to wind it up. Come on guys, less sash and more sashay.
Unionism, like republicanism, needs an agenda when it comes to parades and cultural demonstrations: and that agenda needs to be built around a celebration, explanation and promotion of their beliefs.
Unionists are too angry too often and too willing to react predictably and to someone else’s tune. In a world in which image, impression, message, presentation and media coverage are the key to PR success it’s time that unionism/loyalism started winning the ‘battles’ that really matter.