Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Municipal despots at the Department for Regional Development want to cage our imagination

In full bloom: Pedro Donald outside the recently refurbished Sunflower
DRD minister Danny Kennedy
Columnist Fionola Meredith

If in doubt, rule it out. That seems to be the mantra of the small-minded officials in charge of the day-to-day running of this place. They seem to take a perverse pleasure in saying No, No, No.

In the latest move by this joyless bunch, the Department for Regional Development has set its sights on The Sunflower in Union Street, a bright and exuberant addition to the Belfast bar scene.

Not so long ago, The Sunflower was known as The Tavern, a grim, malevolent-looking venue, with its fortress-like exterior, CCTV cameras and Troubles-era security cage.

The inside was strip-lit and adorned, weirdly enough, with Elvis memorabilia. It was the sort of place where you never felt entirely comfortable; the awful things that had happened there seemed to hang in the air.

That's why the transformation from The Tavern to The Sunflower was so welcome – a new name, a lick of paint, an impressive list of beers and suddenly the sad old place was full of life.

In an inspired move, they even painted the soot-blackened security cage outside bright green and decorated it with hanging baskets.

What a clever, humorous, yet understated way to deal with this odd relic from the darkest days. Neither seeking to erase the past, as the official happy-clappy boosterist narrative would have us do, nor excessively venerating it, the revamp of the cage showed Belfast in its best light – smart, inventive, a little bit ironic and all without labouring the point.

So how did officials react? Did they give Sunflower landlord Pedro Donald a big thumbs-up for helping to regenerate and revive a bleak, decrepit part of town?

Of course not. This being Northern Ireland, they have demanded that the security cage is immediately removed.

Why? Because, according to DRD, it "restricts pedestrian access ... and presents a public liability issue".

The cage, which was erected following a shooting in The Tavern in the 1980s, has been standing – in its original sinister state – on the corner of Union Street and Kent Street for the last 25 years. Why is it only now, when it's all spruced-up and swinging with flowers, that they want to get rid of it?

Is DRD going to remove their own road sign, on the opposite side, which is also restricting access along the pavement?

The truth is, this is nothing to do with access, or public liability, or any of the mealy-mouthed claptrap that officials spout on these kind of occasions.

It is about the arbitrary exercise of power. It is about the miserable mantra of 'thou shalt not'.

And it's the sort of thinking (or lack of thinking) that kills the very qualities we need right now – creativity, inventiveness, motivation, hope.

It was the same scenario a few years ago when local man William Haire opened a beautifully-designed little shop, housed in an old shipping container, on a former bonfire site at a north Belfast interface.

All around was litter-strewn wasteland and half-ruined houses. Locals on both sides immediately took to Sina's shop, loving the friendliness and the handiness of it, the free-range chickens pecking around out the back.

This was cross-community regeneration in action, quietly and simply, over a coffee and a newspaper, no big peace grants, or well-meaning official interventions necessary. So what did the Planning Service do? They fought as hard as they could to shut Sina's down.

Farcically, they claimed it detracted "from the existing character of the area".

These municipal despots zero in, clipboards flying, on perceived incursions by ordinary people trying to make this city a better, more vibrant place to live. Yet when it comes to dealing with paramilitary flags and murals and painted kerbstones, they sing dumb.

But there's still hope for The Sunflower. At the time of writing, the cage remains intact. And DRD minister Danny Kennedy has a choice to make.

Because this is about more than saving an old security cage. It's about embracing change and imagination and joy. It's about learning to say Yes.

Over to you, Mr Kennedy. What will it be?

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