IT'S often the things you don’t see that strike you more than those you do.
Driving up the Shankhill Road in Belfast – the first time I’d been here in almost five years – I was waiting to see the painted kerbstones; red white and blue in the Protestant part, green white and gold in the Catholic bits. But they’d gone.
The last time I was here, I was also riveted by the expressions etched on the faces of people walking the street – anguished, tormented, tired – as they shuffled back and forth under murals of snipers and warfare. But all that seems to have faded too.
And this is what characterises new Belfast, far more than the swathes of freshly-built apartments and office blocks – drawn in glass and steel for the first time in decades through a new found feeling of safety and security.
People walk around the Shankhill Road and the Falls Road with their heads up and their chests puffed out, in new-found roles as ambassadors for peace. These are the people who have ended 22 years of troubles – the peace treaty was signed at the same monastery where confrontations had started in 1969.
The international wall just between the city centre and the Falls Road are covered in messages of hope and remembrance and are visited by tourists of all nationalities. Huge, dominating walls that used to separate communities are now used as temporary art galleries. One is adorned with messages of support from the Dalai Lama. Next to those is a piece of graffiti in pink spray paint, which simply reads: ‘Colin loves Emma’.
That these areas of the city are much improved is important for Belfast as a whole – they are walking distance to a city centre that also has a lively student population of more than 70,000, large offices occupied by US insurance firms and investment banks.
I’m here for a bit of a tour of the main sights, old and new, courtesy of budget airline bmibaby, which has just switched the airport it flies into from Manchester. It now goes to city (George Best) instead of international, which means a far shorter cab ride to the city centre once you’ve landed.
Julian Carr, managing director of bmibaby, also joined us for the day and says that early indications are good: the route should grow among business users. Bmibaby operates 14 aircraft in its fleet currently although if the route is successful, Carr concedes they may have to station a plane in Belfast full-time.
The city centre itself – charmingly made up of five quarters (nowhere near as excessive as Manchester’s 12 or so) – now boasts the highest building in Ireland, the 265 ft Obel Tower, which was completed last year. The tower boasts 28 floors and is sold out.
Elsewhere in the city centre, however, sales have been slow – the concept of city centre living is still very new, and property investors and speculators are still few and far between following the crash of two years ago. You can rent an apartment from around £550pcm or buy one for upwards of £150,000.
The Cathedral Quarter is set for £360m of regeneration, although plans understandably slowed during the recession. Brands such as John Lewis and Harvey Nichols have been mentioned as possible anchor tenants, set around Ryder Square. The area is also home to the super-swanky five-star Merchant Hotel, which was given a £16.5m facelift in 2010 and where we enjoyed a great lunch, and noteworthy pubs such as The Crown and The Duke of York. The Hilda Brewery, based just outside the city centre, is well represented in both, with its Titanic Beer and Belfast Blonde.
It’s hard not to hear references to the Titanic in Belfast. As you head towards the dock, Harland &Wolff’s cranes still dominate the skyline as a reminder of its past; city regeneration bosses are hoping that come next March, the first phase of the £15bn, 350-acre Titanic Quarter will act as a catalyst for its future as a serious leisure tourism destination. More than £15m has been spent there in seven years, and the docks are also being used as a film set by HBO and Universal.
Belfast really does feel like a city on the up. Cosmopolitan sits smartly next to heritage; modern interacts seamlessly with the antiquated.
And that is all a testament to the people who live and work in the city. They look at the Titanic Quarter and its vast dry dock and see that something magnificent was built – not that it was later sunk.
The change in political attitudes and the investment from some of the city’s leading private sector figures, including Dermot Desmond, are a positive step for the city. It felt especially pertinent on the day we visited, as Gerry Adams – such a public and recognisable symbol during the troubles - decided to step down as MP for West Belfast.
Slowly, they are putting two decades of violence and bloodshed behind them, albeit with the tacit understanding it should never be forgotten. That’s the story of new Belfast. And I for one will be coming back to see where it takes them.
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