Belfast: Looking to the Future
Heaney, Liam, Contemporary Review
IT WAS a mild night, with only a gentle breeze blowing, as droves of revellers spilled into the centre of the city eager to make the most of the unique occasion. I well remember that New Year's eve in Belfast to mark the New Millennium. Thousands of people turned out to cheer in the new year, the new century and the new millennium. All age groups were represented and all waited with great anticipation for the signal that 1999 had gone and a new millennium had begun. The area around the Waterfront Hall, where my family and I had positioned ourselves, was hiving with people, as the music from the pop group Bjorn Again rang Out around the city. While we were being well entertained at this venue, Brian Kennedy, a native of Belfast, entertained thousands more at the Belfast City Hall, less than a mile away. The partying had begun and Belfast was rocking and rolling.
As the countdown to twelve midnight began, I could not help but think that people all around the world were celebrating in a similar way, singing, dancing and having fun, but that this was really a special occasion for Belfast. Political movement had been made some weeks and months beforehand. There were strong indications of a new beginning, in more than one sense of that phrase. A new power sharing assembly had been recently formed and it very much appeared that there was a way forward for all living here. As the fireworks exploded in the night sky, in spectacular formations, people looked on in sheer wonderment. Not so long ago, such loud, booming bangs would have sent shivers down the spines of many.
As the booms and bangs from the fireworks continued, thousands of startled birds, awoken prematurely from their roosts beneath bridges and enclaves in nearby buildings, dived and swerved to avoid the onlookers. This added to the novelty of the occasion as high spirits were further fuelled. The display itself lasted about twenty minutes, followed by loud cheers and a round of applause from an appreciative audience. When the fireworks display finished people made their way home by foot and by car. Even then, there was a great sense of people celebrating together. In spite of the long tailbacks of traffic, caused by the exiting of so many people from the city at the same time, there appeared to be no rush, everyone seemed to be calm, tolerant and more patient than one might have expected. Many seemed to be relishing the occasion and trying to make it last as long as possible. Perhaps, I thought, the new millennium would indeed, herald a new beginning for Belfast.
Today Belfast is very much a booming city, and many of its people have high expectations for the future. Many long for progress on the political front and this longing has been given some encouragement with the recent re-emergence of locally elected politicians back in Stormont once again. They themselves express an eagerness to address local issues and to make key decisions about health, education, transport and tourism. It has been suggested, and rightly so, that a new and a unique opportunity has come about, after many years of tough negotiation and frequent setbacks. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been established in Stormont and there is now an opportunity for a new 'start' for all those in Northern Ireland. It is an opportunity for partnership and for locally elected politicians to work together for the benefit of all. This is the vision or the ideal, but bringing it about will be a considerable challenge for everyone.
Of course, it would be foolhardy to claim that this is the only viewpoint held by the people of Northern Ireland, in general, or by the people of Belfast in particular. Clearly, there are those who feel that there have been too many concessions and that political institutions should not have been put in place until the weapons issue had been resolved. Valid and legitimate, though these viewpoints may be, it is also clear that Northern Ireland does need to change. …