Last week, in the midst of a post devolution glow, I posted a message on X, welcoming the small steps which I hope represent a positive new era here. In his first visit as Education Minister Paul Givan went to a Catholic school, Rathmore, where he met and chatted warmly to pupils. The next day the First and deputy First Minister attended a PSNI passing out ceremony; the first time a Sinn Fein politician had done so. Yes it was perhaps a few years too late, but it happened and it’s better that it did.
My post attracted a bit of comment and some accused me of being overly optimistic. That’s probably true but it’s always been my nature to look on the bright side, so I’ll accept that charge. There is a sense of goodwill towards our new ministers and our overall political process by it there is a realism too that the job they have is significant and there are multiple serious issues that need to be tackled. The first few days after restoration was about symbolism and photo opportunities, and now it’s time for work.
High on the agenda of the new Executive will be the state of our towns and cities and the future of Belfast. There has been much commentary about the problems facing our capital city and in my view not enough discussion about the opportunities, of which there are plenty.
In these pages a few weeks ago the former owner of the popular Sunflower Bar, Pedro Donald, expressed his reasons for leaving Belfast, in terms which frankly I didn’t recognise as being associated with my hometown.
He said: “It’s filthy, it’s drugs ridden, crime, homelessness. All cities have these problems, but I would like to think that other cities are doing something about it. We don’t seem to be doing anything about it.”
Now I may have rose-tinted glasses where Belfast is concerned, but I acknowledge there are issues to address, especially around North Street and what should by now have been the flourishing development with the misnomer TriBeCa.
Too many streets have been abandoned and allowed to dilapidate to the point of being unwelcoming. There are clearly issues around drug use and anti social behaviour, and not enough of a holistic responses, but these characterises to not exclusively define Belfast.
There has been major investment by the universities, and the Ulster University campus has transformed the northern end of the city centre. Closer to the centre, Translink is delivering major change to the Transport Hub at Sandy Row / Grosvenor Road. The explosion in student accommodation development has brought hundreds of young residents into the city while exciting projects like the new Room2 hotel have brought new energy to the city centre. These are all positive and welcome developments.
Later this week my company, MW Advocate, is hosting a major event looking at the potential of Belfast, in partnership with the three Business Improvement Districts and Ulster University.
The event will assess and analyse the current state of the city, warts, good sides and all. We will hear from the hospitality sector, public authorities, screenwriters, and the private sector and a myriad of people within the interests of Belfast at heart.
We are also fortunate to secure the participation of renowned urban planner Carlos Moreno whose policy ideas for a 15 minute city have transformed Paris and are being adopted elsewhere.
Carlos’ theory is that everyone in a city should be within 15 minutes reach of public green space, public transport and services, retail outlets and schools. It will be interesting to hear what he thinks of the challenges and opportunities faced by Belfast.
We also have Amy Lame in attendance, the London night czar. We undoubtedly have much to learn about our night-time economy, and how to facilitate diners, drinkers, workers and revellers.
Interest in the event is strong and already it is fully subscribed.
If you see me posting optimistically from the event this Thursday, forgive my enthusiasm, and blame the rose tinted glasses.
- Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on X at @brendanbelfast