27 April 2010

On the Shankill

“The British Connection” and “Change of Address” are two documentaries about Belfast’s Shankill area made in the 1970s. They were shown in the Spectrum Centre, Shankill Road, recently. Both focused on the destruction of the community through development. In a short period the map of Belfast was dramatically redrawn. The bluntest line, causing the shifting or erasure of so much else, was the construction of the Westlink. The Westlink was to be a six-lane chasm bringing traffic to the city centre and to the docks. At the time the documentaries were made the Westlink was still in the future and still being resisted. “As far as were concerned, it’s a monster,” said one interviewee. The monster won.

Stills from both documentaries

In this image the Westlink is going from top to bottom, the Shankill Road from left to right.

An interesting phrase was used. It was said that the Westlink would “divide West Belfast.” It seems to me that the geography has shifted since then. Nowadays it would be more generally perceived that you do not enter West Belfast until you have crossed the Westlink. When you are inside it you are still in the city centre. Look down into the Westlink and it is no surprise that it had this power, it is gaping canyon, a self-proclaiming boundary, well capable of shifting citizens’ perception of space.

The Spectrum Centre is on the corner of the Shankill and Tennet Street

As soon as you cross the Westlink into the Shankill you are greeted by this mural-map. It welcomes you in ten languages and is a plain and practical telling of the neighbourhood. It was nice to see. I used it to keep me right as I walked towards the Spectrum Centre to see the documentaries.

No one would deny that the redevelopment of the Shankill in the 1970s was crudely mishandled. Blame is often pinned on the Troubles. In an earlier entry on this blog I myself suggested that the Westlink is a Trouble’s legacy. However one interesting assertion made in both documentaries was that the redevelopment of the Shankill was not just mishandled because of the pressure of the Troubles. The Westlink had been long planned and the withdrawal of support for streets in its way had begun in the 1960s. Some contributors went so far as to suggest that the Troubles operated as a kind of opportunity, used by developers to break up communities.

Baroness May Blood spoke to the audience afterwards. She is one of the notable locals featured on the mural-map’s frame, second down on the left. Her work for integrated education has been hugely important. She asked us to remember that although the redevelopment of the Shankill was a product of its times and not just the Troubles, the trauma of the Troubles should not be underestimated. Her family was burnt-out of their home during the 1970s. Thousands of other families had similar experiences.

The Shankill Road still has a way to go before it is a pleasant thoroughfare but the overall favour of the discussion was a positive one. Certainly nobody wanted to return to the grey times recorded in the documentaries. As one speaker said, given what the Shankill had gone through, the fact that it has survived at all is something remarkable and hopeful. People want to in be the city even when the city seems to be rejecting them. That kind of perseverance is exactly what could bring life back to those streets in the future.

12 April 2010

Election Maps

As we rumble and grumble towards the election next month, it is a good time to look at Northern Irish electoral maps. These two charts tell a dramatic story. In 1997, out of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies, Unionists won 13 seats while Nationalists took 5. Of the 13 Unionist seats, 10 were claimed by the moderate Ulster Unionist Party. They are represented by light blue on this map and can be clearly seen to dominate.

Results of the 1997 general election. Ulster Unionist Party (blue), Social Democratic and Labour Party (light green), Democratic Unionist Party (orange), Sinn Féin (dark green) and the UK Unionist Party (purple). I got both maps from a website called Tallyroom.

2005 general election results in Northern Ireland using redistributed boundaries. Democratic Unionist Party (orange), Sinn Fein (dark green), Social Democratic and Labour Party (light green) and the Ulster Unionist Party (blue).

In 2001 that domination took a knock but they still remained the largest party. But in the next election they were almost wiped out. It appears that, despite the peace process, the voters used that election to retreat to intransigent corners. Hard-liners, Sinn Féin and the DUP, divided Northern Ireland between them. As we came to see in the following years, this was a dysfunctional arrangement. Stormont barely held together and at key moments required steering from London and Dublin. Sinn Féin refuse to take their Westminster seats, leaving a big chunk of Northern Ireland unrepresented in that forum. One may not think this is a problem, pointing out that Sinn Féin were elected and have the mandate to do so. However, as we can see from the 1997 map, there is a sizeable Unionist vote west of the Bann. MLAs have a responsibility to represent the people who don’t vote for them as well as those that do. More recently, media investigations have exposed corruption in the Robinson household. Peter Robinson has complained that the BBC is out to get him. Does he not realise that speaking like that makes him sound like Robert Mugabe? This lack of political acumen would be almost endearing were not so painfully embarrassing that he is First Minster.

It is fair to assume most of 2005’s voters were behind the peace process. Then why vote in that manner? Why not, in the spirit of the times, move towards a middle ground? It may have seemed that Northern Ireland was about to embark on a long period of wrangling and political horse-trading. So the voters took the opportunity to shore up their positions. The more you have, the more you have to trade and the less valuable stuff you have to give away in order to make gains. Such a cynical use of our votes would suggest that we have been paying attention, all these years, to our leader’s manoeuvrings and have been learning from them. Unfortunately, we were short of positive role-models. No one showed us it was possible to vote with bravery and imagination.

Next month we get another chance.