Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Tweet this: it's what we are, what we're known for

Policing in Belfast during rioting in Belfast city centre on Friday
Policing in Belfast during rioting in Belfast city centre on Friday

Just who are we trying to kid? Every time there's an outbreak of trouble, the same thing happens: all the nice, polite, well-meaning and decent folk of Belfast take to social media to spell out exactly how wonderful our wee city really is.

Sure enough, last Friday, after that bunch of sneering, smirking republicans had succeeded in provoking the grim underbelly of loyalism to obediently heap shame upon itself – and the cause it claims to stand for – yet again, the chirpy twittering started.

This time, even the cops were at it, with PSNI Belfast urging followers to "share why you love Belfast". And back the answers swiftly came, in their droves: the baps, the cups of tea, the warmth of the people and, of course, the inevitable 'craic'.

It's a strange phenomenon, this desperate drive to cheerlead for the city. As far as I know, it began after the flag protests last winter, when some bright spark came up with the idea of reclaiming Friday nights for fun, rather than for endless traffic jams caused by surly and self-righteous protesters, and suggested that everyone stay in town after work and eat and drink themselves silly.

Look, I'm not a total cynic. I understand why people want to tell the other side of the story, the one that isn't all about anger and prejudice and police officers getting knocked on the head by flying bricks.

I have a deep, if problematic, attachment to this mad place that we all call home. There is nowhere else in the world that has the capacity to enrage, charm, appall and occasionally inspire me than this city does.

And the campaigns (including the one by this newspaper) to get people back in Belfast – spending their money, having a fun time, supporting the beleaguered shopkeepers – were a force for good, bringing both much-needed economic sustenance and a spirit of good cheer to the city at a time when it sorely needed it.

But it seems to me that there's little to be gained by labouring the point. What will be achieved, for example, by telling other like-minded people that you love Belfast because it has a great market on Saturday mornings?

It's true, it does, and I admit that the pork and leek sausages at the Pheasant's Hill stall brighten up my weekend no end.

But bleating out a litany of 'likes' does nothing to counteract the brutal fact that we share our city with a small, but substantial number of violent thugs, travelling under their own flags of convenience. Whether through boredom, rage, or sheer sectarian vitriol, they think nothing of dragging this place back to its traditional time-zone, the Dark Ages, and the rest of us with it. I don't think that any quantity of lovely local cupcakes are going to cancel that one out.

There has been a particularly large shudder of embarrassment about last Friday's scenes of disorder, because they coincided with the conclusion of the World Police and Fire Games.

Here we were, wooing the international competitors with our friendliness, our gratitude, even our unseasonally fine weather, and then what has to go and spoil it all but a big, ignorant, old-school riot?

Again, I understand the frustration, but – in an awful way – there could be no more perfect picture of exactly where we are at today, socially and politically, than this absurd scenario.

We stand before the rest of the world exactly as we are: both loving and hateful, proud and self-loathing, friendly and hostile, enlightened and antediluvian. A mass of crazy contradictions, even to ourselves.

There seems to be the misapprehension that, if we shout loud enough about how great we truly are, or line up a long enough list of all the brilliant things about this place, we will somehow obliterate the vicious negativity.

We won't. You couldn't write a long enough list, because that's not the way that external perceptions work. It's the petrol bombs that stick in people's minds, not the unique crustiness of the Belfast bap.

And besides, the World Police and Fire Games people already knew exactly what this place is like.

A taxi driver told me that, when the trouble kicked off on Friday, the phone-lines were immediately jammed with eager competitors desperate to get a cab. Not to flee to the airport, but to get down to the scene of the trouble and witness a real Belfast riot for themselves.

As ever, our reputation precedes us – regardless of what we say, or do.

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