The tide is finally turning in favour of the ambitious plan to claim back the Lagan for the people of Belfast.
It’s 60 years since Belfast turned its back on the Lagan, abandoning the canal and river which was the effective motorway of the 19th century but which was considered to have no place in the New Belfast. What a mistake that was.
As peoples across the world have discovered, rivers and canals give life to our cities and to the communities on their banks. A vibrant city river and bustling canal bring vitality and energy to any metropolis.
And now, at last, that will be the case for Belfast as, four years after I was elected on a promise to put the Lagan rebirth on the civic priority list, Belfast City Council has green lighted a proposal to spend £4m on the first phase of the Lagan restoration.
This will open the river navigation from the Titanic Belfast building to Stranmillis where a new bridge will give the public access to towpaths on both sides of the mighty Lagan.
Reclaiming the river and canal will boost tourism, enhance civic pride, promote healthy recreation, preserve our industrial heritage and provide employment. It will also lead to a step-change in the numbers of people using the Lagan for leisure and sport. We have a long way to go yet before we can realise the dream of opening the entire canal from Belfast Harbour to Lough Neagh — opening up the possibility of travelling by boat or barge to Shannon or Coleraine — but this inspirational Lagan Gateway plan means we are now firmly in the swim of things. (And on that note, I am working with those unsung heroes of Belfast, Lagan Search and Rescue, to mark this landmark decision when it is ratified by full Council on 2 March!)
On Wednesday past, I travelled to Edingburgh to meet Scotland’s Minister of International Development Humza Yousaf to discuss our continuing efforts to provide shelter in our lands to refugees fleeing the war in Syria. The United Nations Refugee Agency has appealed to the developed world to take in 120,000 of the 3.2 million stricken Syrian refugees but while the British Home Office has blanked this plea, the devolved administrations in Scotland and the North have agreed to open their doors to our Syrian sisters and brothers. It’s my hope that from our meeting in the Parliament Buildings at Holyrood, we can show a united front to the authorities in London on this life-or-death matter.
Certainly, the faith communities of Belfast, who will meet again this week to discuss the resettlement of Syrian refugees, have given the correct response to the humanitarian crisis of our time: bringing victims of the war in Syria to our city would be a blessing for Belfast.
While in the Scottish Parliament, I got a chance to sign up to the fan club of Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon.
Finally,in Stormont this week, I had the opportunity to ask the Minister of Justice David Ford about progress in bringing to book the perpetrators of hate crimes in Belfast. While strong leadership against racism is essential — and more voices must be raised — nothing sends out a stronger message about our zero tolerance approach to racism than convictions. I also had the privilege of handing over 12,000 signatures to Assembly Speaker Mitchell McLaughlin on behalf of the campaign to Save St Mary’s College — and afford full marks to the students of St Mary’s, the community of Belfast and our many friends in the Diaspora who ensured the dangerous proposal to close both St Mary’s and Stranmillis university colleges was defeated. A special thanks to those firm allies Brendan Moore, President of the AOH in the US and Congressman Peter King, Chair of the Friends of Ireland on Capitol Hill, who rallied to our side.