Eamonn Mallie thinks Belfast is dirty and something needs to be done about it. He’s right.
In a guest appearance on The Nolan Show last week, he pointed to a number of recent experiences and anecdotes reflecting how the sentiment of a city afflicted by urban decay and seemingly in a permanently dirty condition was one shared by many residents of the city and tourists alike.
Dereliction, vandalism and litter are but three of the signs that the city resting on the Lagan has seen better times.
Over the past few months, multiple videos have gone viral on social media of violent brawls breaking out in the Castle Street area of Belfast city centre.
The stark levels of homelessness and extent of addiction problems in the city was brought to bear by the revelation a fortnight ago that six people had died while living rough on Belfast’s streets over a two-week period.
The SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite tweeted last week that more than a third of the units on the city’s main thoroughfare (Royal Avenue and Donegall Place) were empty.
He has been championing the idea of a ‘night mayor’ post on the city council to try and co-ordinate efforts to improve the city between 6pm and 6am.
This could capitalise on the youthful complexion of the city’s residents with a view to incentivising culture and arts groups to use vacant spaces and bring energy and spark and a renewed interest in the city centre.
The Belfast of 2022 is very much a changed city from just 30 years ago and while many of these changes will have been for the better, in other ways the city has taken a step backwards.
There isn’t much that takes me into the centre of Belfast nowadays, apart from the odd night out.
The sound and recurring appearance of the godawful party bikes along otherwise quiet streets is not a welcome development, while Amazon and the sheer convenience of the local supermarket and suburban retail centres mean trips into the city centre have been few and far between for many years.
It wasn’t always that way.
I spent a large part of my childhood and teenage years in the centre of the city during the latter years of the Troubles and through the 1990s.
The British army patrols, checkpoints, bomb scares, and controlled and real explosions were simply accepted as the norm for all of us for so many years. The streets back then would be swarming of a Saturday, with throngs of people making their way to and from the bus stops and black taxis to the stores; the sound of “Sixth Tele” and “five lighters for a pound” ringing out in the air.
I would pass the hours looking at and listening to the latest albums and singles in Virgin Megastore and peruse and purchase books and magazines in Eason.
When I was a bit younger, I would invariably make my way over to Leisure World and get lost amid the latest toys packing the shelves and triggering a young boy’s imagination.
In my late teens, I was able to meet friends for drinks in city centre pubs and clubs and still be able to catch the ‘Nightliner’ bus home from the Europa Hotel up to 1.30am in the morning — a service no longer available to those living in satellite towns dotted around the city.
Life does not stand still, and Ireland’s great cities are facing the same daunting challenges and problems that politicians and city planners faced in many other urban centres, far and near, in recent decades.
The relocation of the University of Ulster to the north inner city area might breathe much-needed life into the centre — though campaigning groups and residents of local communities continue to have strong reservations about whether or not the type of accommodation being planned will attract families and develop the centre in a sustainable way.
The Green Party councillor in Belfast, Brian Smyth, has spoken about the “decades of inaction” that culminated in the city centre falling into the current state of disrepute.
However, beyond calls for improved street cleaning, there does not seem to be a coherent strategy from the various public authorities responsible for the streets, parks, buildings and economy to dare to plan and think of something better.
It’s almost as if the perpetual state of deadlock in our politics on constitutional and identity matters has sucked us dry and left us incapable of conceiving of strategies capable of halting the decline.
Having experienced a number of overnight stays in Dublin over the past year, I can testify to the fact that the problems facing the capital are at least as great as those we face in Belfast.
We need to sue for something better, and that starts with demanding more from political leaders, who need to be bolder, more imaginative and daring.
Cleaning the streets is a start, but resurrecting our city centres is going to take a lot more than a new batch of power hoses.