How can Belfast be a cool city when we can’t have any fun?
Published 26/04/2012 | 08:00
Isn't this supposed to be our big year? Our time, our place? 2012 is to be one exuberant, year-long party where the whole world is invited to come and see the new Northern Ireland, up off our knees at last and ready to shine.
But behind all the hype of this inspirational vision, the old, bossy, rules-bound mentality hasn't gone away.
The puritan, fun-averse roots of this culture go deep. It would take a lot more than a big golf tournament, a few stripy banners and a fancy light show to get rid of them.
We're not accustomed to letting it all hang loose, you see. Quite the opposite.
The swings may no longer be locked up on Sundays, but this remains a country struggling to free itself from the grip of small-minded, moralistic bureaucracy.
Take the new parking fines. Roads minister Danny Kennedy is whacking penalty charge notices up by 50% to an excessive £90-a-pop — though, if you're an obedient citizen and pay within the allotted 14 days, he'll let you off with £45.
What struck me most, though, was Kennedy's language. He spoke of people needing to be “taught a lesson” if they parked “illegally and improperly”, adding that the fines would “help concentrate minds”.
Come on, Mr Kennedy. All this talk of lessons needing to be learned and improper behaviour makes you sound like a pinch-lipped Sunday school teacher, disgusted because someone went outside the lines when colouring in a picture of St Francis of Assisi.
We're speaking about parking fines here — not multi-million dollar fraud, or a plot to kidnap the Queen.
There's a difference between doing something genuinely illegal and breaking a low-level civic rule, like over-running your parking ticket, or — oh, the filthy wickedness of it — even failing to pay for one in the first place.
So spare us the moral code. We're not criminals or felons, just ordinary people trying to make our busy lives work.
As is so often the case, high-minded rhetoric hides a more basic need. The reality is that this is an indirect tax. Otherwise known as a desperate money-making racket.
The charges themselves are implemented by a private company, NSL. The shortfall between the cash paid to NSL and the revenue raised by parking fines comes to £13.6m, so no wonder Kennedy needs a few more quid in his ministerial pocket.
I bet that figure concentrated his mind all right.
Winston Churchill said that raising taxes in a time of recession was like standing in a bucket and trying to lift yourself up: pointless and counter-productive.
As town centres struggle, our Executive’s answer is to make it more expensive to visit them, by slapping charges on previously free car parks.
There's always public transport, but the way that price-rises are going, it’ll soon be cheaper to actually buy a bus than pay the fare.
Petty puritanism of a different kind raised its head this week with the news that Environment Minister Alex Attwood — the Minister for Fun — has succeeded in his quest to close Belfast nightclubs earlier.
Under a new voluntary agreement, clubs will now shut at 2am rather than 3am. In the early hours of last Sunday, the cops called in to several venues to make sure the party was over.
Well done, Alex. A small victory for joylessness. Have you never experienced the heady pleasure of dancing to Rhinestone Cowboy at 2.45am?
Where's your 2012 spirit? (Perhaps under the soon-to-be rubble of the historic Athletic Stores in the city centre, but that's a different story.)
By all means, crack down hard on the cheap drinks promotions that render some young people legless, a liability to themselves and others.
But shutting clubs an hour early is unnecessary and unfair: the contemporary equivalent of chaining the swings.
As any taxi driver will tell you, the first question from many tourists is how to see the murals, the second is how early the clubs close. In many of Europe's greatest cities, the night is only starting at midnight. God forbid that anyone would attempt some late-night fun here.
Last year, we were promised that young people from all over the world would flock to Belfast after the glory of the MTV awards.
If that happens, they need to find a city that's colourful, confident and at ease with itself — not one where everyone goes to bed at 10pm and parking on a double yellow line is treated like an unforgivable sin.