What is the Belfast Blitz memorial controversy? Political row explained

A draft sketch, drawn up by the council, of a memorial bounded by hedges, envisaged for Buoy Park by the cathedral
A draft sketch, drawn up by the council, of a memorial bounded by hedges, envisaged for Buoy Park by the cathedral

The idea of a Blitz memorial statue in Belfast has a tortured history.

As a trio of Blitz survivors issue a plea to keep politics out of the remembrance of the bloodbath (SEE HERE), The News Letter tries to set out where we are, and how we got here.

Draft council plans for hte siting of the memorial in Buoy Park

Draft council plans for hte siting of the memorial in Buoy Park

UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon, the man who is driving the current proposal which is now being developed, told the News Letter he first proposed the memorial in advance of the 75th anniversary of the Blitz in 2016.

When that anniversary arrived, Belfast City Council marked it with contributions including dozens of plaques at bomb sites and a service at St Anne’s Anglican Cathedral.

However no permanent full-scale memorial has materialised in the years since.

Councillor Dudgeon said that the idea was discussed in a multi-party diversity working group, but this has since been dissolved.

STATUE BATTLE:

He also said it has formed part of discussions between council party leaders about re-imagining the statues in the grounds of City Hall to make them more balanced between unionists and nationalists – and it is this which is holding up the process.

In particular, the UUP believes Sinn Fein want to see a statue of 1916 rebel Winifred Carney erected at City Hall, or else the Blitz memorial will not proceed.

Voicing concern that the city still has no memorial with the 80th anniversary of the Blitz drawing closer, last month councillor Dudgeon called for the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee (SP&R) to put the memorial on the council’s list of projects for the coming financial year - saying otherwise there will not be enough time to build it before the anniversary in 2021.

This met with objections from Sinn Fein and the SDLP and the vote was lost (with seven councillors backing it and eight rejecting it and Alliance abstaining), however the committee did say it would re-consider the issue at its next meeting (on January 25).

Nonetheless councillor Dudgeon put forward a motion at the full council meeting at the start of this month, calling for the memorial to be added to the list of upcoming projects after all, the UUP man said, reversing the decision of the SP&R committee.

Sinn Fein’s Matt Garrett objected, saying: “Originally it was part of a process which was a review of all memorials and other associated statues in City Hall. And you have your reasons – you said it’s about the timing, etc, etc. But it moves it outside that process.”

Tim Attwood of the SDLP told the meeting parties have “moved forward” on getting agreement about a more “inclusive” transformation of City Hall.

“There is a conversation about the grounds, and the Blitz,” he said.

The UUP hit back, with councillor McGimpsey saying it has already taken “four years to get a memorial which is not contentious or political in any way” even near to decision time.

He told the meeting: “It should have been able to be almost nodded through. It should never have been included in part of the whole proposal to look at the statues outside.”

And colleague David Browne told nationalist counterparts that the whole thing has become about green-and-orange politics.

“This is about ‘If we get a statue for Winifred Carney, you can have the Blitz memorial statue’,” he said.

“This statue is being held to ransom for something that’s got nothing to do with the Blitz memorial.”

PROJECT TAKES STEP FORWARD – BUT WHERE?

Depsite SDLP and Sinn Fein objections, the motion before the full council this month was passed by 26 to 22 (with Alliance abstaining again).

Councillor Dudgeon said this effectively “extinguishes” and “overturns” the decision of the SP&R committee - meaning it will be added to the list of projects for the 2019/2020 financial year.

However this does mean there is a timetable for it to be built yet. It still needs to be designed in detail and costed.

Originally envisaged for the grounds of the City Hall, in recent years an idea has emerged of siting a Blitz memorial in Buoy Park instead.

This is by St Anne’s cathedral in the north end of the city centre – an area particularly hard-hit in 1941 – and historian Brian Barton has said it could be considered “a highly appropriate site”.

Mr Barton, author of ‘The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years’, told the News Letter: “Councillors have had this site under consideration since mid 2017 – a strong case can be made for locating it there. This land is already owned by the council and, apart from the precincts of the City Hall, it is the only area of open ground which could be used for such a purpose as there are no other public spaces in Belfast’s city centre.”

And Dr Barton also said the area round the cathedral (given the much-ridiculed name of ‘Tribeca’ by developers) is earmarked for regeneration anyway.

He said: “That there’s vacant ground there in the first place is entirely due to the extensive destruction caused during the ‘fire raid’, the major German aerial bombardment on the night of 4/5 May 1941.

“It’d permit the construction of a much larger monument than would be feasible at the City Hall, where it would have to be shoehorned into a small space.

“That there is vacant ground there in the first place is entirely due to the extensive destruction caused during the ‘fire raid’, the major German aerial bombardment which took place on the night of 4/5 May 1941,” he said.

“Well-known and evocative photographs of Donegall Street taken shortly after the bombs and incendiaries had fallen show the International Bar and other neighbouring properties fully ablaze.

“The fact that Cathedral Gardens is a comparatively large site is a further advantage.

“It would permit the construction of a much larger monument than would be feasible at the City Hall, where it would have to be shoehorned into a small space.

“This would make it possible to display on it the names of all known civilian casualties of the blitz, and to make provision for a small garden of contemplation beside it.

“Joy Hutchinson, the council’s landscape architect, has sketched a draft of its possible configuration. Her design is distinctive, evocative, visually striking and imposing and would provide an entirely fitting commemorative tribute to those who died.

“In addition, the memorial she has planned would be more visible and more of a landmark in Cathedral Gardens than if it was located at the City Hall and constructed on a smaller scale.”

In addition to council funding, the NI War Memorial (which is basically a museum to the World Wars, located in Talbot Street near the cathedral) has said it would fund a memorial to the tune of £100,000.