City Hall statues show our civic spaces can no longer exclusively reflect one identity – Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Charlotte McCurry, dressed as suffragist and trade unionist Winifred Carney, at the unveiling of statues of Carney and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken at Belfast City Hall. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

What do William James Pirrie, Sir James Horner Haslett, Sir Daniel Dixon, Robert James McMordie, Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood and Sir Edward James Harland have in common?

All are remembered for posterity through being prominently recognised in statue form on the lawns of Belfast City Hall.

Apart from being men, they shared in common prominent unionist backgrounds that chimed with the political perspectives of the dominant political class in the city of Belfast throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The grounds of City Hall are also home to a large British cenotaph, at which British military and loyal order commemorations are held throughout each year. An ‘Operation Banner’ memorial bench was also placed in the grounds just over a decade ago to honour British soldiers serving in the north of Ireland from 1969 until 2007, whilst a special Royal Irish Rifles memorial was unveiled in the grounds in 1905 to mark the British forces who died in the Boer War of 1899-1902.

The cenotaph at Belfast City Hall
The cenotaph at Belfast City Hall

It is worth noting that, during that particular conflict in South Africa, tens of thousands of black and white children, women and men died horrendous deaths in British concentration camps, whilst of course the conflict from 1969 in this part of Ireland involved hundreds being killed by British forces.

The demographic and electoral sea change that has transformed this city over the past 20 years and more has been recognised in a most visible manner through the newly unveiled statues to Winifred Carney and Mary Anne McCracken in the most prominent civic space within the city centre.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Carol Moore, dressed as Mary Ann McCracken, at the unveiling of a bronze statue at Belfast City Hall. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Last week, it was also confirmed that city councillors had approved lighting up the City Hall to mark the birthday next month of Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland, with the colours most likely to be used being those of the Irish national flag.

It’s a far cry from the days of the Ulster Says No banner which screamed belligerently from the top of City Hall throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

DUP leader Ian Paisley, alongside UUP leader James Molyneaux, speaks at a platform in front of Belfast City Hall where 70,000 loyalists converged to protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement
For years following the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a banner declaring 'Ulster says no' was fixed to Belfast City Hall (PA/PA)

Those with the power and authority to confer official honours will invariably select individuals deemed worthy from the perspectives and prejudices of the dominant political elite. In the north, the names of hospitals, universities, roads and parks – as well as the faces and figures remembered through statues and monuments – will reflect the reverence with which British monarchs, political and military figures were held by those making such decisions through the generations, regardless of how such individuals were viewed by those of an Irish nationalist and republican background.

The ridiculous charge of rewriting history oft-labelled at republicans betrays an arrogance rooted in an ignorance perpetuated by the manner in which the state and society historically ensured the official narrative was reflected in the media and contested only by those whispering on the margins of society, and in the columns of this newspaper.

It is also the case that the customs and protocols developed by those holding power will be assumed to be the norm – think of the demands and expectations placed upon Sinn Féin mayors to participate in wreath-laying ceremonies at British commemorations on the grounds that the previous office-holders had always done so.

Where City Hall leads, Stormont must follow. We’re in a different place today and it’s long past time that was recognised

The McCracken and Carney statues are important because they recognise two women formidable in their own right, who campaigned for social change and fought for Irish independence respectively. They personify, as the late and great Inez McCormack put it, the people who were not at the table when those wielding power would gather – as women, Irish republicans and campaigners for radical social change.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Charlotte McCurry dressed as suffragist and trade unionist Winifred Carney and Carol Moore as Mary Ann McCracken at the unveiling of their bronze statues at Belfast City Hall. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Fittingly, a weekly walking tour telling the story of the United Irishmen has become well established in the city centre, whilst the Assembly Rooms that were so integral to the story of revolutionary Belfast during the 1790s, in which Irish republicanism first flourished, remain a focus for renovation.

Where City Hall leads, Stormont must follow. Our civic spaces must no longer be exclusively reflective of one identity. We’re in a different place today and it’s long past time that was recognised.