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East Belfast: Proud community that fears being left behind

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Iconic history: Alex Kane beside 'The Searcher' CS Lewis Wardrobe statue at Holywood Arches

Iconic history: Alex Kane beside 'The Searcher' CS Lewis Wardrobe statue at Holywood Arches

Way out east: a mural on the Lower Newtownards Road

Way out east: a mural on the Lower Newtownards Road

Stephen Gough and Ashleigh Mason at The Newton Cafe Brunch Bar

Stephen Gough and Ashleigh Mason at The Newton Cafe Brunch Bar

Lost heart: Billy Rowan at the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre

Lost heart: Billy Rowan at the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre

Iconic history: Alex Kane beside 'The Searcher' CS Lewis Wardrobe statue at Holywood Arches

This is from the introduction to the 2008 East Belfast Strategic Regeneration Framework: "It is not an overstatement to say that east Belfast is one of the most important localities in modern-day Northern Ireland. For over 200 years, it has been the powerhouse of industry and export, strikingly symbolised by the iconic cranes of Harland & Wolff and soon to be joined by the rising towers of Titanic Quarter.

"Northern Ireland is also governed from east Belfast. Decisions affecting people's lives are made in the rooms and corridors of the Stormont Estate, with its vantage-point across the east of the city.

"In addition, east Belfast hosts an internationally respected science park, one of Northern Ireland's leading hospitals, some of the highest-achieving schools and will soon be home to the flagship of further education in the city of Belfast.

"It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that east Belfast has a colourful culture and people, with a proud heritage and tradition. Neither is it an accident that east Belfast has given the world cherished figures, such as CS Lewis, George Best and Van Morrison.

"However, the fact that east Belfast is also home to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland might come as a surprise. Within sight of national landmarks and wealthy suburbs are communities and individuals living with daily hardships borne of poverty, poor health, low educational attainment and the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland."

Well, Titanic Belfast has been completed and is now one of the most successful visitor centres/museums in the United Kingdom. New hotels, office blocks and apartments have sprung up around the bustling Titanic Quarter.

Cruise liners disgorge thousands of visitors on a weekly basis and national and international cultural and sporting events are now almost two-a-penny.

That part of east Belfast has become a success story - a very visible, flashy, vibrant manifestation of the "new" Belfast; a Belfast that is adapting to post-conflict realities and opportunities.

At the other end, in the "Big House on the Hill", there are also changes. Lord Carson still poses at the top of Massey Avenue and Prince Edward Drive, waving at passers-by and surveying the heart of the state he helped to build.

But, today, those passers-by include the opponents of unionism, among them Sinn Fein ministers, who want to change his state beyond all recognition.

And, on a clear day, when he can see Samson and Goliath and the Titanic building, he may also wonder what has happened to the tens of thousands of men and women who worked in and around the docks and assorted industries at the start of the last century, when the Home Rule Crisis dominated the political agenda.

Because Carson would have remembered the time when east Belfast was one of the industrial hubs of the British Empire. It was one of the reasons he didn't want Ireland to drift into independence.

He was at the peak of his career in 1900, when Belfast had the world's biggest linen factories and the largest ropeworks. Its shipbuilding industry produced more tonnage than any other city's.

He would also have known that Belfast was home to cycle-makers, printers, artists, tea magnates, clog-makers, clothiers, photographers, engineers and tobacco manufacturers.

More importantly, Carson would have been aware that, in the unionist/Protestant heartland of east Belfast (and that's why they chose to build their parliament there), pride in their industrial muscle and influence was a key element of their British identity and unionism.

One thing that hasn't changed since Carson's day is the unionist domination of east Belfast. While the Westminster seat may be held by Alliance's Naomi Long, it is clear from other electoral evidence that this is unionist territory.

It's a much more fractured form of unionism, though, with elements of the DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV, Ukip and Conservatives all involved. Flags fly on many lamp-posts around the Castlereagh, Newtownards and Cregagh roads. Paramilitary murals adorn gable walls.

And even in the more middle-class areas, like Knock, Stormont, Ballyhackamore, Belmont, Cherryvalley, Bloomfield and Strandtown, where the symbols and footprints of unionism are almost invisible, the ballot boxes are still heavy with pro-Union votes.

In the heartlands of those working-class areas, there are concerns about being left behind. Stephen Gough, who has cafes on the Woodstock Road and lower Newtownards Road, says: "The political parties are not working together in areas like this with a collective approach for the community. Places are boarded up and painted to make it look normal.

"But we need real shops and pubs if you are to build a community identity. In my opinion, the politicians haven't done enough for east Belfast."

In the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Centre (a loyalist conflict museum), Billy Rowan says something similar: "In many ways, east Belfast didn't see the worst of the Troubles from the 1970s onward, but parts of it are still being left to wrack and ruin now.

"The one thing I do find is that it has lost the heart of the community, because it has so many different people coming in. People used to know their neighbours and they did leave their front doors open and they did speak to each other. That doesn't really happen nowadays."

A number of people I talked to spoke about their own sense of isolation. The owners of two shops which cater for the growing number of eastern Europeans in the area didn't want to be interviewed and didn't even want their shopfronts photographed - fearing some sort of reprisal.

One man from Poland - who again didn't want to be named, or photographed - did say: "I was attracted by a recruiting campaign in my home city for people with a background in engineering, which I have.

"The money on offer was much better than I got there and I was told that there were opportunities in Belfast, because they couldn't get the expertise locally.

"I've been here 18 months and will stay until the end of the year.

"But I am still made to feel like an outsider. I would like to mix, but I am not made welcome. So we stick to our own, which isn't good, either."

The 2008 Regeneration Strategy had noted these factors, arguing that they "create real challenges to the development of strong communities and to service delivery".

Seven years later and there doesn't appear to be much evidence of change.

There are a number of communities across the area: a working-class loyalist/unionist element, which feels that their areas, in particular, have been forgotten about; an eastern European element, which increasingly feels the need to stay together rather than integrate; the Short Strand, along with a few interface areas; and a middle class which has largely opted out of party politics and community involvement.

There's also an older generation, which remembers the dying days of the "old east" and a new generation who have moved there - many of them after 1998 - and haven't really done much to interconnect with longstanding residents. The other thing about east Belfast - particularly noticeable as you approach the city centre - is the number of churches and gospel and meeting halls: making you think that it's either the most godless, or most godly, place in Northern Ireland. Yet none of them seem to have any sign of life about them.

A bit like the silence of the shipyards, they are a reminder of a different time: a time when God and unionism marched hand-in-hand.

What isn't so noticeable is something that could be defined as the heart, or hub, or even the essence of east Belfast.

The collective community identity has gone. The social classes don't mix, mostly because the influence of the Church and Orange Order has declined.

It is a place in search of itself - pretty much like Northern Ireland as a whole.

Eastern promise

  • Until 2010, east Belfast was always represented in the House of Commons by a unionist
  • A century ago, east Belfast was regarded as one of the "most important industrial hubs in the British Empire"
  • Van Morrison, George Best, CS Lewis and Peter Corry all come from east Belfast
  • Ballyhackamore has so many restaurants and cafes that it is now nicknamed "Ballysnackamore"
  • Titanic Belfast is now one of the most popular places to visit in the whole of the United Kingdom

Belfast Telegraph