Belfast campaigns to be the cultural capital of Europe

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The Independent Online

Belfast seized on the optimism generated by the IRA's decommissioning by launching a bid to become the cultural capital of Europe.

The city, whose image has been tarnished by terrorism for more than 30 years, began a campaign to be named the European City of Culture in 2008. One city from the UK will be chosen to hold the prestigious title, which, if Belfast wins, would be a massive boost to tourism, business and the arts throughout Northern Ireland.

Michael McGimpsey, the Culture and Arts Minister who resigned from the Stormont Executive before this week, said there was an untapped creative energy waiting to be discovered in the city and beyond.

"If we can maintain the spirit of optimism the events this week have brought, we can harness that latent talent and show the world just what the people of Northern Ireland have to offer. It is time to put our best foot forward and make a lasting impression," he said.

Cities such as Glasgow and Dublin have enjoyed big tourism spin-offs from being capitals of culture and Cork, in the Irish Republic, is expecting similar benefits when it gains the title in 2005. The EU, which invented the concept in 1985, rotates the title among member states. The title last came to the UK in 1990 when Glasgow was selected. Belfast is competing with Liverpool, Newcastle/ Gateshead, Bristol,Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Cardiff, Oxford and Bradford. But the Northern Ireland capital will have strong backing from ministers in London and Dublin in its bid to succeed.

Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of Imagine Belfast 2008, the company leading the bid, said: "It's a tough competition, but what a prize: to be centre of world attention for all the right reasons. Imagine Belfast as a capital of culture, what a magnificent transformation."

Tom Collins, the chairman of Imagine Belfast, said the aim was to put together an inspirational cultural programme which would have a positive, lasting legacy. He said: "We want to challenge perceived ideas about Belfast and to create a new time and place for the city and its citizens. We can do this by focusing on the richness of our cultural life and the tenacity and creativity of people."

The bid must be submitted by March 2002 and the winner will be announced a year later.

Mr McGimpsey said all of Northern Ireland could share the benefits if Belfast succeeded in its bid. "Culture knows no city boundaries and, as the Province is a relatively small place, there are potential benefits for everyone," he said.