Belfast Telegraph

Council has no right to secrecy over culture bid ... it is meant to be speaking on behalf of us all

Moving towards a better future must be done in a climate of openness and civic conversation, says Fionola Meredith

Culture in Northern Ireland has been "used as a continuation of conflict by other means" - so says the draft bid for Belfast to become European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in 2023.Perfectly true, but it's hardly a big secret.

We know that the whole damn show, going back to the Good Friday Agreement, is predicated on a hostile sectarian carve-up between two divided communities. So why was Belfast City Council opposed to the BBC revealing details of the draft proposal for ECOC 2023?

Leeds, one of the other cities in the running for the title, along with Dundee, Milton Keynes and Nottingham had already chosen to release its proposal, presumably to demonstrate ambition and confidence in what the place has to offer and how it can grow. The Leeds team believed in the bid, so they wanted to get it out there.

But the Belfast grandees preferred to keep their bid under wraps ahead of the decision by the ECOC judging panel. They issued a pompous, reproachful statement: "We are disappointed that the BBC would choose to publish details of a confidential competitive document and potentially put at risk the chances of securing this important accolade that could bring significant and once in a lifetime opportunities."

The instinct to keep business behind closed doors is a well-entrenched one in our hucksterish and politically immature statelet, so the council's reaction was hardly a surprise.

It seems that the only acceptable response to any new project, development or plan - whether cultural or otherwise - is a round of wildly enthusiastic applause.

But I don't believe that this sort of uncritical boosterism, where everything is wonderful, world-class, 100% fabulous, serves the people of Northern Ireland. It's far better to have an open, frank conversation in which all views, both positive and negative, are aired.

We have to acknowledge the realities of this place, to put a finger on what is holding us back, if we really want to find a way to move forward.

So instead of indulging in an ill-advised huff about the draft bid being revealed, why didn't the council have the courage of its convictions and stand proudly behind the statements in the document?

Why not choose to engage the public, who have a perfectly legitimate interest in these matters, by initiating a wider conversation about the limitations of the tired old "two communities" model? It should have done, because this document contains some significant home truths.

For instance, the document says that in Belfast and Derry, which is participating in the bid, "culture is still seen by some and used at times as a tool to intimidate and exclude".

It also says that cultural diversity - the interplay between a mixture of culture and ethnic groups in society - is a failed concept in Northern Ireland.

Instead, the peace process has "focused on cultural differences" between the two largely separate communities. "The binarisms of 'us and them', of Catholic or Protestant, British or Irish, have stifled our institutions, blunted our creativity and reduced our sense of personal identity," it states.

By way of example the ECOC bid uses the council's own draft linguistic policy, which "comprises separate policies relating to the minority languages of Irish and Ulster-Scots, rather than one policy which has shared principles of diversity at its root".

Reacting to the bid, Dr Eamonn Hughes of Queen's University made an astute observation. He said that while parity of esteem - the notion that each side had to respect the other's culture and traditions - was a necessary stage in our recent history, we have managed to get stuck there.

"Culture has then simply become another aspect of how we engage in this me-too politics," he said. "I think we need to move beyond that. I think the document does have interesting things to say about potentially moving beyond that - thinking of ourselves as citizens rather than allowing ourselves to be given an identity by membership of a community."

The bid for Belfast to become the 2023 European Capital of Culture is made in our name. It's being taken forward on behalf of us, the people of this city. So isn't it right and fair that we should be aware of what's being proposed and have the opportunity to have our say about it?

If winning ECOC 2023 can really help us see ourselves as individual citizens - capable of coming together in unity, or standing alone - rather than "me-too" members of one community or the other, then the bid has my wholehearted support. But let's approach it in a spirit of openness, confidence and generosity.

There's no better way to demonstrate how much we want - and need - to change.

Belfast Telegraph

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