Can Belfast reinvent itself as a tourist attraction?

The Titanic Quarter, Belfast’s new tourist hub. Image: Getty.

The skyline in Belfast is climbing high. Only last month, the brand new Titanic hotel – a luxury hotel which has seen £28m worth of investment, and the creation of over 90 new jobs – opened for business.

It comes at a time of widespread change for Northern Ireland. And with tourist numbers up by 23 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 alone, it’s clear that Belfast is beginning to truly make its mark as a capital city in its own right.

Such business ventures are representative of a wider cultural shift, where a more positive history is being used as a tool for investment. The Titanic is just the latest in a growing list of similar projects: the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry opened in 2004; a C.S. Lewis Square in 2016. Most recently, plans have been announced for the creation of a George Best themed hotel in the city-centre.

At the root of all this lies a deeper cultural purpose: to celebrate a past that is not undermined by violence and to return to the original roots of Belfast, where a booming industry in linen, tobacco, engineering and shipbuilding created a thriving urban centre.

Efforts to revive the historical currency of Belfast haven’t been without their problems, though – and recent political headlines have reignited the underlying divisions that exist between communities in Northern Ireland, and relations with the United Kingdom as a whole. With Brexit has come the inevitable tensions surrounding the Irish border, threatening to undermine the peace of the Good Friday Agreement. The coalition between the Conservative government and the Democratic Unionist Party has done much to reinforce the damaging narrative that the province is a parochial backwater. And, most recently, the setbacks surrounding an inquiry into the Troubles have reopened old wounds.


As a state, Northern Ireland was born out of conflict, both externally with Britain and internally through civil strife. Peace has come at a cost, and the country remains overshadowed by its recent past. And it is a history that continues to draw living and tangible boundary lines across Belfast: 108 peace walls still stretch across the province. While communities on either side of these security barriers often tend to support their existence, there is little doubt that the walls are emblematic of Belfast’s fear of regression; the merging of history with the everyday has created an underlying lack of trust between the different districts.

So what have been the implications of this historical legacy? As the more traditional industries fell into rapid decline, this led to a period of ‘industrial suburbanisation’, with many of the new industries and housing developments being relocated outside the city. Combined with increasing emigration – it is estimated that over a third of the population left during the Troubles – the result was a detrimental impact upon both inward investment and Belfast’s place within the broader framework of the European market. Until the early 1990s, Northern Ireland was ranked among the 25 per cent of poorest regions in the EU. Hardly surprising then, that it has taken over twenty years to recover.

All this has resulted in what sociologist Sharon Zukin has described as “pacification by cappuccino”: the creation of neutralised yet increasingly gentrified spaces in Belfast, such as the Cathedral Quarter, that are a marked departure from its more traditional working class roots. Such sites of cross-community integration have also provided a distraction for investors and tourists from the less than desirable legacy of tension. This revitalisation is evident in the development of modern buildings such as the Waterfront Hall, SSE Arena and the Mac Theatre.

It’s clear that Belfast is an up and coming tourist destination. Yet the underlying reality is that history is coded in the very infrastructure of the city. If Belfast is to truly move forward, then the past must remain exactly that – the past.

Recent dismantling of a peace wall in West Belfast – one of the areas most affected by the Troubles – is a positive step towards greater community unity. With the spread of new ideas among younger generations, it’s time to make the most important investment of all – in one another.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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