Belfast Telegraph

Let’s celebrate Northern Ireland's centenary (and our escape from the EU) with another Festival of Britain in 2021

We should unashamedly seize the opportunity to salute the very best of Britishness, writes Nelson McCausland.

Crowds at London’s South Bank during the Festival of Britain in 1951
Crowds at London’s South Bank during the Festival of Britain in 1951

A number of cities across the United Kingdom were preparing bids to become the European Capital of Culture, and here in Northern Ireland a joint bid was being prepared by Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane. However, any bid from the United Kingdom has now been ruled out, because of the decision to leave the European Union.

Some people will look on this with disappointment, but there is no reason why we should not turn this into an even better cultural opportunity.

I want to suggest that we do so by celebrating the best of British culture with another Festival of Britain, which could include contributions from cities and towns across every part of the United Kingdom.

I say ‘another’, because there was a previous Festival of Britain, back in 1951. The idea had emerged during the Second World War, and the festival took place just six years after the end of the conflict.

The choice of year may also have been influenced by the fact that it was the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The main festival site was on the South Bank in London, but this was a nationwide celebration and there were events and exhibitions in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, as well as across England, Scotland and Wales.

There was a focus on the arts, architecture, science, technology, industrial design and all sorts of traditional arts and crafts, but there was a wide range of events, appealing to a wide range of audiences, a wide range of interests and to all ages.

The festival opened on May 4, 195,1 and newspapers reported: “Throughout Ulster last night, church bells were rung for two hours to mark the opening of the Festival of Britain.

“Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and other youth organisations in Ulster joined in lighting bonfires ... In Great Britain, there were similar celebrations by youth organisations.”

The main exhibition site for Northern Ireland was at Castlereagh, and it had a focus on industry and farming, as well as a programme of activities for adults and children.

Urban and rural councils across Ulster organised their own programmes, but it was not left to councils alone. What is now known as ‘civic society’ threw itself wholeheartedly into the festival and churches held Festival of Britain services of thanksgiving and dedication.

Schools, colleges and universities played their part, as did most organisations and societies, and every day our local newspapers reported on the events of the previous day, as well as providing news of forthcoming events.

The magnificent John Luke mural in the City Hall was commissioned for the festival, but this was not the only local arts commission. The Ulster Savings Committee commissioned a statue symbolising thrift, by the sculptor John Knox. The figure of a girl gleaning wheat now stands in the grounds of Stormont, close to the Massey Avenue entrance.

There was a Festival of Britain ship, the Campania, which served as a floating exhibition hall.

It visited ports around the UK, including Belfast, and perhaps for a future Festival of Britain, Londonderry could be added to the list of ports, as well as Belfast.

This could be an opportunity for the people of the United Kingdom to celebrate the best of British endeavour, the best of British culture and heritage, across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It could be a looking back at past achievements, a look around us at Britain today and a confident look forward to the future.

Too often we hear the strident and belligerent voices of those who want to denigrate our past and eradicate any sense of national pride.

The people of the UK should not allow those dissident voices to dominate the public space, and this would be an opportunity to celebrate the best of Britishness.

Of course, it would take some years to organise another Festival of Britain, so as regards an appropriate year, I would suggest 2021, the centenary of Northern Ireland.

What better year could there be than that?

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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