Belfast has changed beyond all recognition since the IRA ceasefire. But if you come here for a stag or hen night, leave your novelty water pistol at homeby Aarathi Prasad / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
When I moved to Northern Ireland in 1989, you could buy a terraced house in certain rough parts of Belfast for £3,000 or £4,000. Today, one of these “artisan houses” (as estate agents call them) would cost you £150,000.
The process that got us these staggering price rises started with the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and culminated on Tuesday 7th May 2007, with the coronation at Stormont of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as first and deputy first minister respectively. While the ceremony was surprising for its excess—the enthusiasm of these representatives of loyalism and republicanism for one another’s jokes, after 40 years of murderous rancour, was frightening—the accommodation it heralded was not. We’ve been waiting for this for years, and money, which invariably runs ahead of politics, has been flooding into the province in anticipation.
Some of this cash has been released by the improving security situation, and some has been brought by Ulster exiles returning now that we have peace, anxious to send their children to grammar school. Along with the rise in property prices, the money has brought bathroom shops, interior decorating consultants and, in the not too distant future, it will bring Ikea to Belfast too. It has also catalysed a vast improvement in the city’s social life.
In our dark past there were two problems with going out in Belfast. The first was that you were never free, if only on a semi-conscious level, from the idea that paramilitary unpleasantness might spoil your night. The second was that Belfast was a culinary hell. Now, the part of the brain that monitors personal safety can relax—and the city has turned into a culinary heaven. Belfast today has some very good restaurants, as well as clubs and bars that are a pleasure to visit, especially since you can’t smoke in them any more. It has even become a popular destination for British hen and stag parties, God help us.
Belfast, I tell my British friends, is Edinburgh but without the New Town. Like our Caledonian cousin, runs my sales pitch, we’ve got our own parliament of self-assured if pompous politicians whose energy radiates through the city, making possible what was hitherto thought impossible—namely, civil society.
But, as I was reminded recently, much as I like to think we have the same virtues as Scotland’s capital, we have also a lot of that other Scottish city, Glasgow, about us, and I don’t mean the new, glossy Glasgow, I mean the old, violent Glasgow, with its hard men and harder cops.
I know this from direct experience—well, indirect direct experience. I have written a promenade play, Henry & Harriet. The action unfolds in shops and alleys in Belfast’s centre as we follow Henry, on the evening of 2nd April 1912, buying what he needs while avoiding Leonard, a loyalist from whom he’s stolen money, before boarding the Titanic. At the denouement, Leonard has a gun.
The rehearsals were in a studio, but the night before we opened there was a run-through in Cash Converters, the real shop where the final scene is played. The production company had warned the police, and they had a gun licence. (There’s no room for error when it comes to guns in Belfast.) The actors ran their lines and the actor playing Henry fled from Leonard, as the script requires.
The director noticed the actor had gone the wrong way when he got outside, and thought he was messing. But he then banged on the shop door. The cast told him to go away: they had the end of a play to finish. No, said Henry, you seriously need to come out here. The director went out and met two policewomen in flak jackets. Madam, are you OK, they said. After momentary confusion, she realised they thought she was a customer who’d got tangled up in an armed robbery. The actor with the gun, seeing what was happening through the open doorway, sensibly dropped the firearm.
Everyone milled out on to the street for a police debrief, and the story of what had happened emerged. Three pedestrians walking past Cash Converters had reported armed robbery. CCTV cameras in the street had followed the scene through the window. Men with rifles had surrounded the shop. It seemed that the information about the play involving a firearm had not been passed on. The police couldn’t say for sure whether they would have shot Leonard once he came out (they weren’t going to fire when he was still in the shop in case of hitting bystanders), but for the actor playing Leonard, Belfast born and bred, it was the most frightening moment of his life, ever.
That the police could have been ready to deal with what they thought was an armed robbery in such a manner reminds us that we’ve a long way to go before it can be said that we’ve truly transcended our paramilitary past—doesn’t it? No, you might say, this story is a one-off. Well, consider this then: the night the run finished, one of our stage managers was in a Belfast city centre pub when a disgruntled customer—he was refused admittance earlier that evening—shot the place up. See what I mean about guns and us? Or is it that my play was just jinxed? I think not. Finally, a word of advice if you come here for a hen or stag night: leave that novelty water pistol at home.