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Save our city and the Sunflower from killjoy bureaucrats

By Fionola Meredith

Published 01/01/2016

Pedro Donald
Pedro Donald

Is Belfast, as a city, allergic to joy? Sometimes I wonder. There's a nasty tendency, deeply ingrained in officialdom, to wipe out anything that brings a sense of life and exuberance to the place. It's a form of ignorance or perversity that the Belfast novelist Brian Moore recognised very well.

In 1955, he wrote about "the order… the neatness… the dull Ulster mediocrity" that  defined the city. More than 60 years later, it seems we still suffer from the "dearth of gaiety" and "surfeit of order" that Moore observed.

In other cities, colourful chalk pavement graffiti might raise a smile from passers-by, before it is washed away by the rain; here it incurs a fine. Bright fly posters hopefully announcing performances and events are swabbed out with ugly smears of grey or brown paint. Licensing hours are kept within strict puritan limits, as a deterrent against excess or vice. Or fun. Especially fun. And now, in the latest offence against collective joy, it seems that the Sunflower pub, recently voted best bar in the city, is to be casually demolished, to make way for a block of student flats.

The Sunflower, which lights up the dark end of Union Street, is a proper little corner pub. Good drink, good food, good music: that's what it's about. Nothing fancy; there are no bartenders in wacky braces or absurdly complex cocktails that all end up tasting the same. Sometimes, interesting things happen upstairs: comedy nights, poetry readings, and gigs of course - loads of gigs. All kinds of people go there, young and old, gay and straight, everyone mashed in cosy and tight together, because it's tiny.

It didn't used to be like that. Before the Sunflower was the Sunflower, it was the Tavern. And what a bleak, strip-lit cheerless spot that was, with its weird Elvis memorabilia and Troubles-era security cage enclosing the door. You knew that bad things had happened in there, even before you were told. Then veteran publican Pedro Donald took it over and transformed the place, sweeping away its sad old ghosts. The security cage was painted bright green and crazily festooned with hanging baskets. You could sit up at the bar at midnight and have a dish of tasty stew with your pint, and chat to somebody you had never met before (as well as lots of people that you had). Suddenly it was a place to go, rather than one to avoid.

But wait a minute. People having a good time? That can't be allowed to happen. Not in this city.

Donald only found out that his pub was scheduled for demolition when he saw the proposed redevelopment plans at a Department for Social Development consultation. A red line marked out the area to be flattened, and the Sunflower was right in the middle of it.

Belfast has never had a clear vision of the city it wants to be. Take a look around and the evidence is right in front of you, wherever you turn. After the Troubles, there was no plan of action to survey the physical damage, and to restore and rebuild the place anew. Instead, developers grabbed and built piecemeal-fashion, privileging crude profit and convenience over quality, coherence and imagination.

It's vital that similar mistakes are not made in the redevelopment of this part of Belfast. With a planning process characterised by thoughtful care and insight, rather than the free use of the wrecking ball, the old can be successfully integrated with the new, and the Sunflower can survive. The city that is being built now must be the city that citizens want to live in. We all have a right to say what we want it to look like, feel like, sound like.

It's not the first time that the Sunflower has been faced with the obtuse rules-is-rules mentality. A couple of years ago, the Department of Regional Development (DRD) suddenly noticed the spruced-up security cage - which had been there for the last 25 years - and demanded that Donald get rid of it, since it "restricts pedestrian access ... and presents a public liability issue". DRD backed down on that occasion, and the cage remains. So there's hope that the officials will listen, if we raise our voices loud enough.

The pockets of vibrant life and liveliness in Belfast are so rare that they must be protected and fought for, not wiped out by the line of some nameless bureaucrat's red pen.

Belfast Telegraph

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