David McKittrick: Our Man in Belfast

Cars groan under the weight of alcohol, the bottles clanking with early Christmas cheer
Click to follow

Belfast doesn't really do Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot: instead it flings itself enthusiastically into celebrating Halloween. It liberally bedecks itself with pumpkins, ghosts, witches and ghouls. Plastic skulls are, for some reason, particularly popular.

You might think that republicans would find some merit in commemorating an alleged Catholic attempt to blow up the House of Lords. You might think the likes of the Rev Ian Paisley would see political advantage in highlighting Catholic treachery, medieval or modern. But the appetite simply isn't there.

Instead the city turned out on Halloween night last week to watch thousands of fireworks exploding overhead and delightfully lighting up the skies.

For some of the older and more nervous in the audience the spectacle, particularly the loud bangs, evoked slightly unwelcome memories of the days when explosions occurred every night in Belfast, not just at Halloween.

But although the days of frequent detonations are in the past, there are still occasional reminders that this is not a tranquil city and that some chronically slow learners still yearn nostalgically for the bad old days.

The bombs may have stopped but the bomb scares haven't, causing huge disruption with a suspect package, or even with just the cost of a phone call.

Thus the British Council of Shopping Centres, meeting in the city's showpiece Waterfront Hall, had last week just heard that Belfast was the best place in Europe to invest when the 2,000 people attending its conference had to be evacuated.

Nothing was found and the event, the largest private sector conference ever held in Belfast, resumed without incident. But it was an unpleasant reminder that some in the city hanker after its violent past rather than a better future. A local MP fumed: "All the positive potential that this conference held for Belfast has been put at risk as - once again - our old problems came back to haunt us." To see delegates herded out on to the streets because of a bomb scare was, he added, "disheartening to say the least".

Nor was this all. On Saturday someone telephoned bomb warnings to Down Royal racecourse, just outside Belfast, where one of the most popular meetings in the Irish racing calendar was taking place. At least 8,000 people had to be evacuated as the meeting was abandoned, the organisers condemning "a tiny minority in our community who are clearly set on living on the past".

For the most part, Belfast has never looked better, with new businesses, hotels, shops and apartments transforming the old place. Almost the entire city is peaceful; almost the entire population feels nothing but relief that the troubles are in decline.

But they are declining, not disappearing: some clearly cannot let go of the past, and are intent on keeping alive the ghosts of troubles past.

Illogical border

Shopping mall experts and racegoers are not the only visitors to Belfast these days. The pre-Christmas season is just beginning to bring in large numbers coming north from the Irish Republic in their annual migration in search of bargains, causingBelfast drivers to honk their horns.

This is not a friendly Belfast gesture of greeting and welcome. Rather, it's a sign of impatience at southern drivers making their slow and uncertain way around the city centre, peering out for bargains. The shops are pleased to see the southerners but many drivers are less so.

The border between north and south has lost some of its significance in the past decade - but some important differences remain, and they include the price of booze. According to a survey in the Irish Independent newspaper, a litre of Smirnoff vodka is €9 cheaper in Belfast. A litre of Jameson whiskey, meanwhile, can cost €35 down south but is available in the north for just €28.

The Jameson price difference is yet another illustration of how illogical the Irish border can be, since the whiskey is made in Dublin. Indeed, some of those heading north to buy it more cheaply, in part of the UK, actually pass the distillery on their way.

As a consequence many cross the border to stock up for the Christmas season. Then they head south again, their vehicles groaning under the weight of alcohol, the bottles clanking in an early portent of seasonal cheer.

One northern store manager told a southern journalist: "People from the south spend a fortune loading up the boot with drink. I don't know how you people have any livers left at all. But I think there's an element of people shopping for friends and neighbours - at least I hope so."

All the best

Belfast has been mightily relieved by the news that George Best, one of its best-known sporting sons, appears to be improving following his recent health scare.

George, who comes from the east of the city, went to the grammar school I attended, But he left it early: he wasn't much good at lessons, it was said. Also, since he hated the compulsory rugby, the school concluded he would never be much good at games.

His glorious soccer career cheered Belfast hearts when the city was at its most violent and needed a lift, but his later alcohol problems obviously aroused pity rather than admiration.

This ambiguity was illustrated last week when the Belfast News Letter asked its readers whether a new Northern Ireland sports stadium should be named after George. Forty six per cent said yes but 54 per cent said no, a verdict which seems to say that many remember his glory days, but rather more would prefer not to be constantly reminded of his own personal troubles.