As recent events in Belfast have shown, many working-class communities in Northern Ireland still feel despondent and uncertain of their future. Whether real or imaginary, the perception within the Unionist Community particularly is that the other side has gained most from the political process and this has been feeding an increasingly sceptical and negative appraisal of the Belfast Agreement, and what we call peace. The overriding concern most frequently voiced by community activists is that there is increasing internal disarray and even disintegration within loyalist areas.
The unemployment situation remains poor and we rely too heavily on State intervention. The general level of educational attainment remains abysmal, no matter about our fine Grammar Schools. The former community infrastructure, even if largely of an informal nature, has taken a severe battering from mismanaged redevelopment, the break-up of old communities and the absence of any long-term strategy for revitalisation and renewal. That is why cultural tourism is so vital to social, economic and cultural regeneration within large areas of Northern Ireland.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should assess the further potential for the development of dynamic cultural quarters to promote and showcase local culture and as locations in which Arts and Culture can be offered. District Councils should place greater focus on the historic cores of our cities and towns through the development of history trails, imaginative interpretation and storytelling. The Department and the Arts Council should assess the position elsewhere in terms of requirements place on developers to incorporate public art into major schemes, particularly in urban areas. The NITB in each product group network should determine the extent to which theme tours and trails can be used for the special interest market as well as future tourists.
In East Belfast there is ample potential to develop and coordinate trails and tours focusing on diverse aspects of culture and tradition. C S Lewis, perhaps the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century, was born in Strandtown, Belfast in 1898. The C S Lewis tourist trail links the main places in Belfast and North Down closely associated with Lewis. For example, St Marks – Dundela, Little Lea – Circular Road, The Old Inn at Crawfordsburn, the Holywood Hills which were the template for the Narnia Tales, Campbell College, Dundela Flats and the Centenary Sculpture at Holywood Arches. Little Lea was recently under threat of development. Bernagh, where Lewis wrote his first book as a Christian, the great “Pilgrim’s Regress” was actually sold for development by the South and East Belfast Health and Social Services Trust, to their everlasting shame. Then there is the link to Helen Brooker’s Belmont Tower, which has now become a National Trust property. Other centres throughout Belfast could be created by the Trust by means of their Heritage Outreach programme
The story of the Titanic, of course, has been told across the world, but Northern Ireland has failed miserably to capitalise on the fact that the ship was designed, built and launched in Belfast. The plans for the Titanic are currently held at the Ulster Transport Museum at Cultra. The original drafting room still exists, as does Thompson Dock and the keel blocks on which Titanic rested during its fitting out. The Titanic Signature Project will help to redress the balance. Furthermore, the S S Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line tender, which was used to ferry passengers to and from the Titanic and was once located on the River Seine in Paris, should be another focal point for a Titanic trail.
The historic cores of our key cities offer up a great opportunity for tourism as has been shown by the potential of Derry’s Walls and the Doherty Castle. The development of a Heirskip Village, centred on a reconstruction of Belfast at the time of the American Revolution could be created in Inner East Belfast to facilitate the promotion of Ulster language and culture, which should be taken forward on an equal basis with Ullans and Ulster Gaelic to revitalise the whole area. Finally, we must require developers to incorporate public art into their major schemes, particularly in urban areas, so that they can put something back into the community,which, like the Romans of Old, they have pillaged for so long.