Years ago, in 1989 to be precise, I visited Belfast to film a documentary for Granada about what we called the search for ‘the dirtiest city in Britain’. I took with me Roger Daltrey, of all people.
We didn’t get on very well, as it happened, but I was fascinated down the Shankhill Road as people came out of their homes with their entire record collections for him to sign. And he signed.
That dates the whole thing pretty convincingly. There may not be nearly so many vinyl collections these days down the Shankhill Road.
The short film caused me no end of trouble and notoriety. Belfast city councillors condemned me for my ignorance, and it was true in a sense: I was pitting the combined local experience there against the figures. And there were other factors that could have been brought to bear.
‘The sheer determination of the people of Belfast to lead richer lives,
to overcome the limitations imposed by the troubles, has given it a head start’
Belfast came top in our algorithms entirely because of the higher levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide in the air there (that was pretty much all that got measured outside London in those days). It wasn’t really fair, in retrospect, because it was a result of a legal anomaly: Northern Ireland came to smoke control ten years after the English cities. The English cities were choking on motor fumes while the Northern Ireland cities were still suffering from the previous generation’s pollution.
When it comes to home-grown economic regeneration, there is a similar problem. Belfast was in some ways late to the party. If other cities began to experiment with community economics, Belfast leaders were traditionally suspicious of too much spontaneous local organisation in case it was linked to paramilitary activity.
But there is also a sense whereby the sheer determination of the people of Belfast to lead richer lives, to overcome the limitations imposed by the troubles, has given it a potential head start. They know how to support each other in Belfast. They have simply had to learn.
There is another sense in which Belfast has an advantage. The institutions designed to support local enterprise have not been hollowed out in quite the same way that they have in mainland Britain. They were designed to support Northern Ireland, and they do.
A recent event at Belfast City Hall to encourage new entrepreneurs included an SME Centre at University of Ulster, as well as the Ormeau Business Park, the City Business Hub, plus a new agency called Entrepreneurial Spark. Belfast has learned from the pioneering Entrepreneurs’ Network in Totnes and have based something similar at the city council.
The truth is that Belfast is a peculiarly intense cross between the past and the future. It has institutions and communities which work, despite the remaining divisions, but also a public sector that remains stuck in a more bureaucratic past – it is significant that the entrepreneurs event was taking place in City Hall.
There are major hurdles to overcome, and cuts in the public sector which may require it to take more of a back seat. But there is at least the opportunity of grassroots entrepreneurs, reaching across the community divisions, and beginning to make things happen – in a way that smaller nations can sometimes make possible. Belfast is a UK city on the other side of the Irish sea: it could make this combination the best of both worlds.
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.