Almost halfway through. One would think that at this point in my Mitchell year I would have a firm grasp on identity processes and divisions in Belfast. The opposite is true.
On this very blog, I wrote that the emerging younger generation of Belfast residents might drastically influence history in Northern Ireland by virtue of their peaceful, cosmopolitan, and pluralist attitudes. In the past couple of months, that simple assertion has been complicated by an urban geography jam-packed with class issues, continued segregation, and mistrust. I am, by nature, a short-term cynic and long-term optimist. I fixate on the problems we face in the here-and-now, while projecting a positive vision of the future. Belfast’s here-and-now is ripe with issues.
Housing and unemployment, major problems that helped ignite the Troubles, continue to plague inner-city working-class communities (both Protestant and Catholic). Belfast’s City Council has renewed its emphasis on community centers and organizations, but funding for preventive programs is scarce and the effects of that scarcity are sometimes violent. With the so-called “peace money” dwindling, belts on all bellies are tightening and the consequences–especially in areas where locals often describe Belfast’s current tranquility as a “bought peace” –could be dire. Throw in a Scotland that seems to be on the verge of independence (a move that has begun stimulating debate in Northern Ireland) and one would not be irrational in stating that Belfast’s short-term future prospects may not be all roses and no thorns.
Attitudes and perceptions of the city and its future vary drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood. By and large, the middle and upper classes see the next decade as one full of opportunity. Downtown Belfast, rebuilt as a retail utopia and neutral space, is often cited as evidence of positive change. On my last walkthrough, however, I noticed a plethora of retailers announcing close-out sales. Unable to get into the black during Christmas, many shops are closing their doors. I recalled a conversation I had a few months ago with a friend. We wondered how a metropolitan area of only a few hundred thousand people (mostly working class folk) could possibly support such an enormous amount of luxury retail.
Less than four months ago, Belfast was vibrating with positivity. Downtown seemed to be doing fine and the European Music Awards were going to be held in the city. Belfast was on the map. I hope that the optimism wafting through the streets was justified. Any return to the violence of the latter half of the 20th century would be truly tragic. There are, however, numerous obstacles that stand in the way of a sustainable bright future.