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Yes, Belfast has its faults, but it's a wonderful city too

By Fionola Meredith

Published 23/10/2015

Fionola Meredith
Fionola Meredith

Wherever I go, I'm always on the look-out for good graffiti. It gives you a better sense of a city than any amount of vapid PR-generated pap by the local tourist board. And you don't even need to travel to find some choice examples. Belfast people have a long-standing habit of writing things on walls. There's the political and paramilitary stuff, of course, which tends to be fairly predictable.

Far better are the random observations and comments, many of which have a pleasingly absurdist character. "Fat people are hard to kidnap." "Continental breakfast is not real breakfast". "Killing people is rude". Or here's my personal favourite: "question authority", under which someone else has written - "why?"

This week, I noticed some new graffiti, on a wall near Queen's University. "Love, peace and happiness - is this possible in Belfast? Discuss."

Well, it's been a long time since I sat an exam paper, but I'm never one to pass up an intellectual challenge.

The most obvious answer is no. This place is not normal. Maybe never will be. I mean, look around.

We still understand ourselves, as a society, through violence, or the (relative) absence of it. We cannot achieve the normality we need to flourish while we are caught in this tense, wary post-conflict limbo. We have not grown since the Troubles ended; if anything we have turned ever more crabbedly in upon ourselves.

The longed-for era of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding has failed to materialise. There are more so-called peace walls than ever, a sharply divided education system, and there are still kids throwing stones at the cops.

We do not have the evolved, confident, even-handed democracy that we need so very badly. Whether the IRA exists in any meaningful form or not - and I am weary of the semantic contortions around this issue, and the frenzied analysis of the semantic contortions - is not the point. What we are seeing is little more than an unseemly scrum between the two main parties to retain their death-grip on power without losing face among supporters.

(Have you noticed, by the way, that the DUP's language about Sinn Fein - talk of the "stench" of republicans, or the need to "hold their feet to the fire" - gets ever more offensively lurid, the closer the party edges to an inevitable deal with the Shinners? Just saying.)

Devolution to a dysfunctional, inept parliament - essentially a jumped-up county council, unequal to the job with which it has been tasked - has failed to improve our lives, not least because of gross financial mismanagement.

What's more, we don't have the things that other people, in the rest of the UK, feel entitled to expect: abortion rights, access to certain cancer drugs, marriage equality, gay adoption. Victims, meanwhile, are treated to bursts of ostentatious public respect, then left alone to cope with their mental and physical pain as best they can.

But hey - as long as we're not murdering each other, right?

It's not all bad. In fact, Belfast consistently scores highly as a decent place to live in quality of life studies, coming out ahead of Manchester, Liverpool and London. It tends to excel on measures like work-life balance, travel to work times and housing affordability. Even the daffiest surveys show Belfast performing well: one company analysed the facial expressions in tens of millions of location-tagged photographs posted on Instagram. And what do you know - Belfast emerged on top, hailed as "the happiest city in the UK". Or at least the one with the widest smiles.

Of course, we don't need statisticians to tell us that you can be contented here. I don't know anyone who gauges their inner serenity by how far it complies with PriceWaterhouseCooper's latest growth analysis.

Even as the Troubles raged on, people were capable of carving out their own small pockets of peace, or happiness, or success. The English poet, Carol Rumens, who came to Belfast in the early 90s, wrote of her surprise to find that this was so.

"I expected bleachworks and burnt-out cars, not fuchsias … Not to hear my footsteps, lonely in streets of wet hedges That tell me: here peace, and love, and money, are made."

Despite everything, it's entirely possible to have a fulfilled, civilised existence in Belfast, the craziest city in Europe, Rihanna's archetypal "hopeless place". It always has been. Just block your ears to the politics, avert your eyes from the sectarian skirmishes, and keep on relentlessly smiling.

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