Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Why does it look like Belfast’s been hit by apocalypse?

You have to give her points for local pride. But Anna Lo’s claim that the “boring” Great Wall of China isn’t a patch on Derry’s Walls may be just a tad overstated.

True, the Great Wall does go on a bit. Around 5,500 miles is the joined up estimate. But that doesn’t actually make it any less impressive.

According to legend (sadly not borne out by astronaut eye-witness account) you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon.

Ms Lo’s gripe is that you can’t see even Derry’s Walls from Derry.

“There are direction signs just stuck on them and buildings have been granted permission to be built that obscure part of the Walls,” she says.

Government departments, the Alliance MLA argues, should show the Walls more respect. She’d like to see them better promoted — a fair point given that they celebrate their 400th anniversary in 2014. Sadly promoting our good points has, as we know from grim experience, traditionally been a bit of a hit and miss operation in Northern Ireland.

It’s reported this week that several hundred thousand pounds is to be spent — quite sensibly — on sprucing up Fermanagh for the forthcoming G8 conference and the arrival of several high-profile heads of state.

And a number of other areas including Belfast are going to benefit, too.

True, it’s unlikely that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will find time to fit in a Titanic tour of the capital when they’re over for the Enniskillen gig.

But here’s the thing.

Some of the several hundred press people covering the G8 conference might well decide to give Belfast a quick burl.

I hate to think what they’d make of it the way it is today.

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Belfast is long overdue a major tidy-up in some of its most central, sight-seen streets. I know there’s a major makeover planned for the North Street/Donegall Street area. But that’s for some time in the future.

In the meantime, with another tourist season upon us (and 57 cruise ships carrying over 100,000 people due to dock in the coming months) there’s a desperate and immediate need for a quick lick of paint over some of the city’s worst eyesores. I’ve mentioned before, but just opposite St Anne’s Cathedral is some of the ugliest graffiti and decay in the city.

It looks like something from a post-Armageddon film set. How do tour guides sell it to the visitors?

“Welcome to our smart new Cathedral Quarter. It’s just across the road from that burnt out arcade there …”

Some might argue that an interim tarting-up of the place is the equivalent of wallpapering over the cracks. But it’s surely better than leaving it the way it is. The Backin’ Belfast campaign has (belatedly) injected some degree of civic pride back into this place.

In the last couple of months traders have faced a perfect storm of traffic congestion (Belfast on the Move), the flag protest fall-out, high parking charges, bad weather and the traditional January dearth of customer cash.

But maybe worst of all has been the tardiness of those in authority to react to any or all of this.

A countrywide spring clean and spruce-up is not just about impressing foreign visitors. It’s also about bolstering the pride local people have in their own areas. We have a long, long way to go before all our walls are as pristine and impressive as China’s.

Some of our eyesores are so outstanding they could well be visible from the moon.

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