The North’s largest city by some distance, with a population of some 270,000 in the inner city rising to 600,000 across its wider metropolitan area, Belfast has a pace and bustle you’ll find nowhere else in Northern Ireland. For many, however, the city will always be remembered as the focus of the Troublesthat dominated Northern Ireland’s politics for almost three decades from the late 1960s and scarred so many lives. Indeed, as the North continues to come to terms with the aftermath of the peace process, instigated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the city remains in some ways on a knife’s edge, always expecting some new predicament to emerge.
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In appearance Belfast closely resembles Liverpool, Glasgow or any other industrial port across the water, and, similarly, its largely defunct docklands– in which, famously, the Titanic was built – are undergoing massive redevelopment. Though the city centre is still characterized by numerous elegant Victorian buildings, there’s been an enormous transformation here, too, not least in the greater prosperity of the shopping streets leading northwards from the hub of Belfast life, Donegall Square. Yet economic improvement is not reflected in every aspect of Belfast life. Some areas of the city display obvious economic decline, most notably North Belfast and the once-thriving so-called Golden Mile (now little more than a silver two hundred yards at each end). On week-nights the city centre can resemble a ghost town, though there’s no doubt that Belfast continues to thrive culturally. Theatre and the visual arts are flourishing, and there are plenty of places to catch the city’s booming traditional-music scene.
A couple of days are enough to get a feel for the city, although it is a good base from which to visit virtually anywhere else in the North. In the city centre, concentrate on the glories resulting from the Industrial Revolution – grandiose architecture and magnificent Victorian pubs – and the rejuvenated area from Ann Street to Donegall Street now known as the Cathedral quarter. To the south lies Queen’s University and the extensive collections of the Ulster Museum, set in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens. A climb up Cave Hill, a couple of miles to the north, rewards you with marvellous views of the city spread out around the curve of its natural harbour, Belfast Lough. The River Lagan flows towards Belfast Lough along the eastern side of the city centre and offers riverside walks, and is also the focus for the most radical development in the last few years, the Laganside, focused on the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Complex across the water. In East Belfast, across the river beyond the great cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, lies suburbia and very little of interest apart from Stormont, the former Northern Irish parliament and home to the modern Assembly. The city’s once-formidable security presence and fortifications are now virtually invisible, but the iron blockade known as the Peace Line still bisects the Catholic and Protestant communities of West Belfast, a grim physical reminder of the city’s and country’s sectarian divisions – and there are certain flashpoints such as the Short Strand in East Belfast and North Belfast’s Ardoyne area that it is still inadvisable to visit.
Belfast began life as a cluster of forts built to guard a ford across the River Farset, which nowadays runs underground beneath the High Street. An Anglo-Norman castle was built here in 1177, but its influence was limited, and within a hundred years or so control over the Lagan Valley had reverted firmly to the Irish, under the O’Neills of Clandeboye. In 1604, Sir Arthur Chichester, whose son was to be the First Earl of Donegall, was “planted” in the area by James I, and shortly afterwards the tiny settlement was granted a charter creating a corporate borough. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century though that Belfast began to grow significantly, when French Huguenots fleeing persecution brought skills which rapidly improved the fortunes of the local linen industry – which, in turn, attracted new workers and wealth. Through the eighteenth century the cloth trade and shipbuilding expanded tremendously, and the population increased tenfold in a hundred years. With economic prosperity, Belfast became a city noted for its liberalism: in 1791, three Presbyterian Ulstermen formed the Society of United Irishmen, a gathering embracing Catholics and Protestants on the basis of common Irish nationality, from which sprang the 1798 Rebellion.
However, the rebellion in the North was quickly and ruthlessly stamped out by the English, and within two generations most Protestants had abandoned the Nationalist cause. Presbyterian ministers began openly to attack the Catholic Church, resulting in a sectarian divide that as time drew on became wider and increasingly violent. At the same time, the nineteenth century saw vigorous commercial and industrial expansion, and by the time Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status in 1888, its population had risen to 208,000, soon exceeding that of Dublin.
With Partition came the creation of Northern Ireland with Belfast as its capital and Stormont as its seat of government. Inevitably this boosted the city’s status, but also ensured that it would ultimately become the focus for much of the Troubles. Though its fortunes now reflected the status of the British economy, Belfast mainly fared well, despite major German bombing raids during World War II. However, the economic status of the Catholic population was deliberately maintained at a low level by the Stormont government, largely consisting of Protestant landowners and businessmen, which saw no reason to challenge existing sectarian employment, housing and policing policies – all fuel to the fire which was to follow.
For 25 years from 1969, Belfast witnessed the worst of the Troubles and, by the time the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, much of the city resembled a battle site. Then followed a sea change in the city’s fortunes as Britain and the EU funded a revitalization programme costing billions of pounds. Major shopping centres were built, swish hotels, bars and restaurants seemed to spring up almost overnight, and buildings such as the Waterfront Hall and Odyssey complex have fundamentally altered the city’s skyline. Young Belfast partied like never before – and to some extent still does – while the atmosphere of the whole city centre changed irrevocably.
Nevertheless, Belfast remains a city divided and all evidence suggests that sectarian attitudes are hardening, especially among young people, some of whom, though not old enough to remember the Troubles, regard the Orange Order marching season as an opportunity to confront both their “opposing” community and the police with bricks and petrol bombs. Yet while the peace is fragile, there is still optimism for the future as seen in the ambitious centenary celebrations that commemorated the launch of the Titanic, a product of Belfast’s once thriving docklands.