Opinion

Newton Emerson: Council light shows are out of control

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Belfast City Hall first installed its ‘intelligent’ flood lighting system in 2013, allowing the building to be illuminated in different colours to mark occasions or celebrate causes
Belfast City Hall first installed its ‘intelligent’ flood lighting system in 2013, allowing the building to be illuminated in different colours to mark occasions or celebrate causes Belfast City Hall first installed its ‘intelligent’ flood lighting system in 2013, allowing the building to be illuminated in different colours to mark occasions or celebrate causes

There have now been well-publicised arguments in three of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils over whether to light public buildings white or blue and white to show solidarity with victims of the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

These disputes are a grotesquely tasteless self-indulgence. They should provoke a complete rethink on the out-of-control practice of illuminating council property.

Belfast City Hall has been lit up for 65 different reasons so far this year, sometimes for 10 or 11 causes a month. The next scheduled light-show is this Sunday, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, which could easily have provoked another row. Sinn Féin makes regular complaints about Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, while unionists might object to Ankara’s threat this week to send defence forces to Gaza.

Read more:

Newton Emerson: What if Sinn Féin boycotted DUP's 'east-west council'?

Newton Emerson: Whatever happened to legal reform?

Patricia Mac Bride: Gaza innocents must be protected by international community

Cost of the light shows

The first question journalists and ratepayers tend to ask about this circus is how much it costs. Belfast’s councillors were unpleasantly surprised three weeks ago to learn of a £25,000 annual bill to maintain and replace the special LED bulbs at City Hall.

But this is a trivial fraction of the council’s budget. The true cost is the extravagant waste of time.

Most councils have only one full meeting a month, lasting two or three hours. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon spent an hour at the start of this month arguing over illumination. Belfast had its row in a separate committee but the decision is likely to be ‘called in’, leading to further reviews, motions and arguments. A similar row in Lisburn also began in a committee and will be escalated to a review.

Some of these arguments are an annual tradition. Lighting for Pride caused rows in Lisburn and Armagh in July. In 2018, the same row caused a split in the DUP in Newtownards.

Transgender Day of Visibility is becoming an addition to this calendar. Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon spent much of its February meeting deciding not to illuminate for the occasion.

The resulting arguments hurt the groups councils are trying to support and spread discord through wider society. In the 2018 row in Newtownards, dissenting DUP and UUP councillors warned that gay constituents were being insulted by needless grandstanding all round.

Belfast City Hall lit up green, purple and white to mark the centenary of women's suffrage
Belfast City Hall lit up green, purple and white to mark the centenary of women's suffrage Belfast City Hall lit up green, purple and white to mark the centenary of women's suffrage

Yet when councils illuminate without argument, it is scarcely noticed.

Will Israel or Palestine really care?

Nobody in Israel and Palestine will notice the illumination of Craigavon Civic Centre, obviously, although there is an embarrassingly non-zero chance they might see reports of the dispute – grist to propaganda mills on both sides.

But how many people here realise a cause is projected across their local town hall, or care if they do realise? How many care even if it is their own cause?

Illumination fatigue was predicted by Belfast council officials in 2016, three years after the installation of the LED technology that has replaced flags with photons and mesmerised councillors with its endless posturing opportunities.

Belfast City Hall is lit up blue to show support for the NHS
Belfast City Hall is lit up blue to show support for the NHS Belfast City Hall is lit up blue to show support for the NHS

At that stage the council was marking 25 events per year, which had filled the system’s memory. Requests had been received to mark 182 more, requiring a £20,000 upgrade.

Officials warned over-use would diminish lighting’s impact by making it “passé”.

Councillors were asked to consider marking fewer days relating to “medical conditions or diseases” due to the “virtually inexhaustible supply of deserving organisations and causes”.

Belfast City Hall lit up in the club colours of south Belfast GAA club Bredagh as its members gathered to mark its 50th year
Belfast City Hall lit up in the club colours of south Belfast GAA club Bredagh as its members gathered to mark its 50th year Belfast City Hall lit up in the club colours of south Belfast GAA club Bredagh as its members gathered to mark its 50th year

What is the point of light shows?

City Hall has been lit up for 15 medical causes this year, none of which can be said to have gripped the public imagination. If little awareness is being raised, few extra donations are being generated, so what is the point? If it is solidarity with sufferers they might prefer the council gave £1,000 to 25 medical charities a year, rather than spending it on lightbulbs.

As for the political causes politicians seem unable to resist, another Belfast City Council policy provides the solution. Since 2021, Sinn Féin and the DUP have been vetting motions in a new committee, supposedly to stop the full council discussing subjects outside its remit. Both parties simply want to control the agenda but the principle has been established.

Councils have no say over equality law, the health service, schools or just about anything related to their favourite ‘culture war’ issues. They certainly should not have a foreign policy: that is reserved to Westminster. So they should not be discussing foreign wars at all.