2020: A Year of Huge Promise
35 years ago, when I lived in a West Belfast house where the front door had drop bars to prevent it being sledge-hammered in and where the stairs boasted an iron gate which wouldn’t have been out of place in a bank vault, my California pal Kevin McKiernan suggested that I swap my Belfast City Council business attire — which included a flak jacket – for the working uniform of your average Santa Barbaran — a Grateful Dead tee-shirt and beach shorts. (Kevin was a war photographer which sort of tells you all you need to know about Belfast as a visitor destination in those days.)
It was a generous offer but because there was so much to do in Belfast — and we had such a tremendous canvas on which to create — that I decided to stay put and get stuck in.
Thus when some well-wishers suggest that, on stepping down from the role of Sinn Fein public representative — for the second time — I traverse the bowl of tears to the US, I ask them if they have been reading these blogs at all.
For the potential to create real, lasting, positive change in Belfast is a thousand times greater today than it was in the bleak mid-winter of our conflict. Indeed, I am convinced that we are on the cusp of a bright new day in Belfast and I want a front-row seat for the show.
But even if I’m not upping sticks to start anew in the US, I most certainly do intend to bring America to Belfast — put the dates in your diary now for the seventh annual Belfast International Homecoming, 14-16 October — on a scale not seen before.
It has been an absolute privilege to serve the voters of west and south Belfast in my two spins on the poliical merry-go-round and a great honour to serve Sinn Féin. But with my bus pass application set to go in today, it was the right time for me to hand over the MLA baton to that consummate community activist and beacon of positivity Deirdre Hargey. Herself a former First Citizen of Belfast, Deirdre will leave a real mark on political and civic life in her new role.
But, in that well-worn Belfast tradition, once I said I was offski, I started getting requests for assistance — some of which are too exciting to resist.
Prime among those is the plan to reimagine the Lagan towpath at Shaftesbury Recreation Centre by transforming the Murray Lock House into a hub of community vibrancy and a catalyst for economic rebirth. The Murray Lock House is the last single dwelling in Belfast which faces the mighty Lagan river.
I have been asked by LORAG to chair an advisory group to enable the delivery of this £2.5m cross-community, multi-purpose Lock House which has the potential to transform this area of the towpath, knit together the tech cluster businesses at the Gasworks with the Ormeau communities, provide mental wellbeing activities for local people and city centre office workers, create a bikers’ café, community garden and a men’s shed — all while embracing the river with a festival and boating activities.
You can see the artist’s impression of the new-look lock house at the top of this blog but the real prize will be to get over the river to the old McConnell Weir, a scheduled monument which has been allowed to deteriorate into an eysore. Imagine instead, a pontoon for pleasure boats, a bridge across to the weir, and a reconstructed working lock and there you have a project which would be a boon to the Ormeau and a gift to the entire city. (You can join me for a virtual, out-off-breath running tour of the site on Twitter.)
If you think all that is impossible, I suggest you travel across to the CS Lewis Square in the heart of working class East Belfast. I enjoyed an early 60th birthday lunch in the Freight restaurant (it’s in a shipping container!) at CS Lewis Square beside the Connswater Greenway, courtesy of that master-community building craftsman Maurice Kinkead. Neither award-winning restaurant, well-used square (complete with Lion from the famed book) nor miraculous greenway would exist without Maurice. But the added treat was a visit to the Boundary Brewery nearby where a Prohibition-era speakseasy was in full flow (with full licence of course).
There is a quiet process of transformation going on in Belfast which is being driven by boundless ambition and a thirst for an inclusive and diverse society at peace with itself.
I’ll drink to that in 2020.
Go raibh bliain úr faoi mhaise agaibh uilig.
Wishing all readers of this blog a wonderful New Year.