Life

Jake O'Kane: I feel sorry for the tourists who visit Belfast – a city stuck in 1974 and where on a Sunday it's easier to get heroin than a latte

I hate to talk negatively of Belfast but I feel genuine sympathy for the thousands of tourists arriving on the ever-increasing flotilla of visiting cruise liners

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

For all the improvements that have been made, Belfast still presents the adventurous tourist with a glimpse of life circa 1974. Picture by Mal McCann
For all the improvements that have been made, Belfast still presents the adventurous tourist with a glimpse of life circa 1974. Picture by Mal McCann For all the improvements that have been made, Belfast still presents the adventurous tourist with a glimpse of life circa 1974. Picture by Mal McCann

I recently came across an interview from 1974 on BBC NI’s online archive where the then new boss of the NI Tourist Board was asked if it was safe to visit Belfast.

The beleaguered man did a brilliant job deflecting from the grim reality of life here at the height of the Troubles, explaining many cities had similar difficulties to Belfast, such as landmines in Jerusalem, cholera in Rome and New York’s high murder rate.

Of course, he left out the fact that at least in Jerusalem you’d be assured of good weather, whereas in Belfast we’re permanently overcast. Your cholera-induced fever in Rome would be ameliorated by its beautiful architecture and art; in Belfast, all we had were bomb sites with art confined to scrawled initials on gable walls depicting the city’s multifarious paramilitary organisations.

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And while your chance of getting murdered in New York was high, at least it was the city which never slept; Belfast at that time closed at 5pm.

I’d love to say this has all miraculously changed, but I’m not going to lie. I hate to talk negatively of Belfast but, the truth is, I feel genuine sympathy for the thousands of tourists disgorged into it from the ever-increasing flotilla of visiting cruise liners.

As they walk from their ships onto a vacant soulless dockland, they’re driven into a city which, if visited on a Sunday, is every bit as desolate as in 1974.

Belfast has become a regular stop for cruise ships, disgorging unsuspecting tourists into the city...
Belfast has become a regular stop for cruise ships, disgorging unsuspecting tourists into the city... Belfast has become a regular stop for cruise ships, disgorging unsuspecting tourists into the city...

Bewildered, they wander vainly in search of an open coffee shop much less a bar, ignorant of the fact that Belfast maintains Victorian Sunday opening hours, where it's easier to get a hit of heroin than a latte.

If they’re unfortunate enough to wander into the north of the city, they’ll see a derelict wasteland of closed shops and burned-out buildings. One positive is anyone wishing to make a movie about the Troubles won’t need to go to the expense of building a set; instead, they need only locate to Lower Donegall Street to find 1974 authenticity.

And before you write to tell me of the wonders of the new Ulster University campus, I’d argue it looks like the worst of 1960s architecture with its windowless, all-brick prison-like housing blocks for students.

Thankfully, most tour companies have the sense to use the city solely as jumping-off point, stopping only at Titanic Belfast, a singular gem in an otherwise miserable visage of new office blocks along the Lagan.

I find it somewhat ridiculous that tourists are taken, for entertainment purposes, from one ship to an exhibition about another doomed ship; I wonder how many travellers check the location of lifeboats upon returning to their vessels?

Other passengers are transported north to the Giant's Causeway. Well, you couldn’t say you’d been here without marvelling at hexagonal basalt rocks. Grasping local treasures such as leprechaun shillelaghs and wooden miniatures of Belfast’s cranes, our happy visitors sail back down Belfast Lough to visit cities where civic pride isn’t confined to their LGBT+ parade.

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Staying on Pride, the PSNI announced this week that members of the force attending this year’s event aren’t allowed to wear their uniforms. The explanation for this decision was so convoluted as to make Orwellian double-speak seem intelligible.

After reading it for the sixth time, I think they’re terrified of offending any section of our society, no matter how small. I presume they mean that minuscule minority of bigots who regularly spout anti-gay hate speech in central Belfast, to the disgust of most of its citizenry.

This latest decision by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne at least proves he’s consistent, continuing with his litany of recent high-profile gaffes, including arresting Black Lives Matter protestors. He now seems intent on forcing his LGBT+ police officers back into the closet.

I’d suggest the Chief Constable saves himself some time by investing in a new rubber stamp reading, "I’m sorry, I was wrong, again." I also hope that my imaginative and resourceful LGBT+ friends respond to this retrograde decision by marching whilst resplendent in hired police uniforms.

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As our Assembly heads into its summer recess, I pose the conundrum: how can an MLA distinguish between being at work and being on holiday? I wish them all some well-earned rest so they can return, refreshed, to spend yet another year scrounging from the public purse whilst achieving nothing save scratching their itchy a**es.