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Century ago Belfast was 'anvil of the Empire' now it's ceased to be a unionist city

What it is, though, and what we should celebrate, is a vibrant, exciting destination with a story to tell. By Alex Kane

On September 28, 1912 Edward Carson led a procession to Belfast City Hall. At the main entrance, in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, he leaned over a Union flag-draped table and became the first person to sign Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant.

For the next 12 hours or so men were ushered in, 500 at a time, to add their signatures. It was one of the biggest crowds that had ever gathered in Belfast. This was their city: a unionist city that they were determined would become the capital of that part of Ireland, which they were pledged to save from Irish unity.

It was an important city in both the United Kingdom and the Empire, a powerful industrial and commercial city that had benefited and prospered from its links to London, Scotland and much further afield. Unionism, in the political sense that we understand it today, was still in its early stages at that point (it had begun as a reaction to the Home Rule crisis in the late 1880s) and it had earmarked Belfast as the political/electoral hub of its power.

Seventy years later - in November 1985 - unionism found itself at the centre of another crisis (this time the Anglo-Irish Agreement) and Belfast City Hall was, once again, the location for a massive demonstration.

The attendance figures are still disputed, but somewhere in the region of 250,000 unionists - many of whom didn't belong to the Orange Order or a political party - gathered to hear Ian Paisley, Jim Molyneaux and Enoch Powell (among others) condemn the "treachery" of Margaret Thatcher and the "duplicity" of the Irish Government.

Paisley's "Never, Never, Never" was an echo of Carson's "Never, Never" to a Home Rule Bill. At that point Belfast was still a unionist city in terms of population and politics. Indeed, apart from the Alliance Party's David Cook in 1978-79, a unionist of one sort or another had always occupied the position of Lord Mayor.

Yet skip forward to late-2012 and something had changed. A non-unionist majority in the City Hall voted to stop flying the Union Flag 365 days a year and limited it to a handful of "designated" days. The reaction of political unionism/loyalism was furious, but they failed to mobilise anything like the sort of crowds which would have come out to protest years earlier.

Indeed, within a very short time the protests had fizzled out altogether, because people in Belfast were just getting on with their everyday lives, work and shopping habits.

It's worth looking at the electoral figures for Belfast. In 1973, at the first election for the new 26 councils, unionists won 32 of the 51 seats. In 2014, at the first election for the 11 new 'super councils', they won 24 of the 60 seats. In the general election in October 1973 unionists won three of the four Belfast seats. In 2015 they won two, but it required an election pact to wrest back East Belfast from Naomi Long. In the 1973 Assembly election they won 16 of the 24 seats. In 1998 they won 12. And, last Thursday, they were down to just six out of 20.

That's an extraordinary turnaround in just over 40 years and raises the question of whether Belfast can still be regarded as a "unionist" city. The additional fact that unionism no longer has an overall majority in the Assembly (a possibility I raised in this newspaper a few weeks ago) will, of course, have a knock-on effect on Belfast.

So, how would this continuing shift in political/electoral demographics manifest itself? Well, we've already seen a change in the signs and symbols in various parts of the city, particularly the growth in the use and teaching of Irish language, as well as in the use of Irish for street names and places.

If - and it looks increasingly likely that it will happen - there is significant movement on the promotion of Irish language as a consequence of the post-election negotiations, then it seems inevitable that we'll see increasing evidence of that across the city, particularly if an Alliance/Sinn Fein/SDLP majority on the council is prepared to row in behind what some unionists have described as the "greening" of Belfast.

I've also heard senior figures in the Orange Order and assorted unionist parties express their concerns about the likelihood of Twelfth parades not being allowed to go through the centre of Belfast for much longer; and accompanying fears about July 12 and 13 being robbed of their public holiday status.

There are similar concerns within the loyalist community, with spokesmen claiming that working-class unionists are overlooked in favour of their counterparts in republican areas. As one put it to me: "We are expected to remove our symbols and murals, while they are encouraged to keep going with theirs and being promised the right to use Irish in their own areas, while 'ourselves alone' Gaeltachts are being developed everywhere. We can't parade. We can't have our flag on the City Hall. Our people are moving out of Belfast. This is no longer our city."

But should Belfast be viewed as either a unionist or a nationalist city? Wouldn't it be better if it promoted itself as a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-identity city, welcoming to tourists from everywhere and capable of telling the collective stories of its own past?

There are signs, symbols, benchmarks and touchstones which matter to both the main communities; and surely it would be better if we accommodated those, rather than insisted on an us-and-them divide, which is built on one community being perceived to have the upper hand?

One thing is certain, though. Belfast is no longer a unionist city in which a political majority can, by itself, steer events. And nor will it become a nationalist city. What it is - and what we should collectively boast about - is a changing, growing, vibrant, exciting, attractive city. It is a city with much to be proud of; a city which is carving out a reputation for itself in terms of literary, artistic, musical, architectural and cultural talent. People want to come and see Belfast. We have a story worth telling.

But it's a story we must tell together. There is much in our past that unites us and in which we can take joint pride.

We must never allow Belfast to ever again become an us-and-them city, let alone a city in which one political community claims a monopoly on identity.

A capital city works well when it properly reflects the rest of the country.

It works even better when it sets the standards for civility, harmony, co-operation and common purpose.

The city has changed - and changed for the better.

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