Tangling up the Nazi Blitz in orange/green politics sullies memory of its victims

In May 2015 the city’s councillors first began to deliberate on whether to erect a permanent memorial to commemorate the victims of the Belfast blitz.

Then, the 75th anniversary of the German air raids was approaching and a private charity spontaneously offered to contribute, without conditions, £100,000 towards the cost of its construction.

Blitzed buildings on lower Donegall Street, still smouldering on May 8 after the raid on 4/5 May

Blitzed buildings on lower Donegall Street, still smouldering on May 8 after the raid on 4/5 May

It would appear that now, over three and a half years later, the protracted discussions at City Hall are at last reaching some sort of climax.

A motion in support of the initiative was narrowly passed by the council on Monday, January 7. But the final outcome remains shrouded in uncertainty, with issues relating to finance and planning permission still unresolved.

I am writing publicly to implore council members to proceed with building a permanent blitz memorial hopefully in time for the 80th anniversary in 2021.

This is effectively the last occasion when anyone who witnessed, and has memories of, those terrible events is likely still to be alive.

St Matthew's Catholic Church, Newtownards Road, showing how near to being it was to being demolished in the Fire Raid, 4/5 May 1941''Provided by Blitz author Brian Barton

St Matthew's Catholic Church, Newtownards Road, showing how near to being it was to being demolished in the Fire Raid, 4/5 May 1941''Provided by Blitz author Brian Barton

The case for agreeing to erect it is entirely self-evident, and impossible to deny or refute. Certainly it would be unwise for any local politician to declare publicly that they were opposed to its construction.

The Belfast blitz was the greatest disaster in the history of the city or, indeed, of any city or town in Ireland.

In the course of four German air raids during April and May 1941, it is estimated that 970 of Belfast’s citizens lost their lives.

The carnage and destruction which they caused affected both communities, Catholic and Protestant. It is almost certainly the case that more members of the congregation of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Donegall Street, perished during the blitz than in any other parish in the city.

Photo showing the east wing of the City Hall, where the first floor banqueting hall and ground floor offices were badly damaged during the 4/5 May raid

Photo showing the east wing of the City Hall, where the first floor banqueting hall and ground floor offices were badly damaged during the 4/5 May raid

Also, unlike the fatalities resulting from the Titanic disaster, virtually all of those who died were local people, born and bred in the city, many of them living in its poorest and most deprived districts.

Numerous memorials to civilian war dead have been erected in blitzed British cities and towns (Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth, Portsmouth), and also in Eire (Dublin, Campile in County Wexford). But no equivalent monument has been built in Belfast.

There is a valid, additional reason why Belfast’s councillors ought to support the erection of a blitz memorial.

Since January 2017 the public’s esteem for local politicians has plummeted to ominously low levels, not just in the city, but throughout Northern Ireland.

Brian Barton

Brian Barton

This is mainly owing to the ignominious collapse of the Stormont Executive and the persistent failure of Assembly members, still in receipt of substantial salaries, to resolve the political impasse over the past two years.

This lamentable record of collective inadequacy undoubtedly poses a threat to the continuation of our fragile state of peace here and, in the longer term, to the survival of at least some of our democratic institutions.

If the council were finally to erect a blitz memorial it would indicate that our party leaders still have the capacity to reach agreement, to take decisive action and, as a consequence, to produce a tangible and worthy outcome.

I feel strongly that the erection of a blitz memorial ought to be regarded as a non-party political issue.

My understanding is that since June 2016 the Sinn Fein and Alliance parties have made support for its construction conditional on inter-party agreement being reached on the need to achieve greater balance in relation to the civic statuary in the city centre area.

With ample justification their councillors consider that the assorted plinths and images located there at present are unrepresentative because they depict and embody the unionist tradition to the virtual exclusion of any other.

I wholeheartedly support the view that they ought to be more eclectic with, for example, nationalist figures commemorated, and more women (not just Queen Victoria) and other images reflecting the role of labour and of the working class in our city’s rich and diverse history.

But I can see no legitimate or logical grounds on which the resolution of this issue should block or delay the erection of a memorial to the victims of the Belfast blitz.

As already noted, during the air raids large numbers of innocent citizens from both communities were indiscriminately and randomly killed and maimed.

My opinion is that the protracted party in-fighting and disputation that this matter has generated in the council over the past three and a half years is a grave indictment of its political leadership, especially in view of the very generous grant for the construction of a memorial made available by a local charity at the outset.

Its persistent wrangling and inability to compromise sullies the memory and the sacrifice of those who died in such harrowing circumstances during the Second World War.

• Brian Barton is a historian and author of ‘The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years’.

He was writing after a dispute in Belfast City Council saw a proposal for for a Blitz memorial to be placed on the list of council projects for the coming year rejected due to objections from the SDLP and SF at a committee in December. However, the idea was passed in a different vote by the council this week (but, again, over SDLP/SF opposition)