I’m a fan of public art. I think it’s usually money well spent. A great example is the Balls on the Falls, or to give it the proper name “Rise”. While it was going up I was sceptical, looking at it with narrow eyes, always asking “how much is this costing?” Can you imagine being without it now? I love seeing starlings roosting on it. I love it lit up in winter evenings. I love the break to the skyline it gives us without creating shade. I love it. I feel similarly about the fencing around the RVH, the fabulous angel at the Waterfront and the fantastic statue at the corner of the Shankill to William Conor. We are enriched as we go about our everyday, mundane business in an unobtrusive way.
It is with that personal point of view I have engaged with the mini debate that has arisen since the efforts to remove statues to the Confederacy in southern states of America. Our local translation to the debate has been to point to the statues of Victoria and Carson in Belfast and acknowledge that there is no reflection of an anti-imperialist or anti-sectarian tradition. And of course that matters. What is erected and what we name streets, gathering places and areas of note, reflects the values we have in society. It was incredible to me that the flagship shopping centre would be called Victoria. And I do find it hard to call my local hospital the Royal Victoria, the college in town Queens. But all of that is an argument well rehearsed. We live with a legacy of occupation and the fawning of imperialism. And we do it with positivity and creativity. How else could we explain a Sinn Féin centre on Sevastapol Street, named after a Crimean War battle, or one of the most dynamic community buildings in the city the Shaftesbury Recreation Centre, in the heart of the Ormeau Road, named after a British lord. The living give new meaning to those names.
There is a worthy call for new statues to join those that exist. Statues to Winifred Carney and Alice Milligan, both women who contributed to the struggle for Irish freedom, would certainly begin a process of balance. As Councillor Deirdre Hargey puts it – a process of adding to, not taking away.
I have a thought though. Why go so far back in history? Why would we not reflect recent events such as the prison struggles, or internment? Why would we not build statues to contemporary heroes in our areas who fought injustice throughout our conflict? In Lisburn their council did not think twice before spending public money on a statue to the UDR.Something that was extraordinary given the sectarian history of the UDR. Is it possible to add a fuller complexion of our more contemporary history to Belfast’s street furniture? I doubt it. A statue to the breaking of the Falls Curfew at City Hall is currently difficult to imagine. And that tells us something. It tells us some histories are “safer” and more acceptable than others, and we have lots more work to do towards mutual understanding and respect. But in the long term that process of building understanding of our shared histories and values will be absolutely more important than any statue.