On Saturday I participated in an event, which for me personally reinforced my long-held view, regarding the strong connection/correlation between people and place. How the power of place brings people together of all viewpoints and beliefs to discuss and debate. This of course is not a new idea, the Ancient Romans and Greeks used their forums and agoras as centres of artistic, spiritual and political life in their cities. The gathering of citizens in an accessible public arena was vital for disseminating political and philosophical ideas and in creating the roots of democracy.
In this case the arena was the International Conference Centre (ICC) in Belfast and the event was called ‘Beyond Brexit’. The aim of the conference was to start a ‘big conversation’ on the future of Ireland, as an island. As would be expected at this type of occasion, there was a wide range of views and mantras trotted out by both local politicians and those from south of the border. However, this was complemented by other delegates who broadened the debate to include topics such as human rights, access to education and healthcare; but above all looking forward to the needs of the younger generations who will follow us. What was really striking was how much common ground was accomplished, regardless of political perspective.
Central to the themes discussed and probably the most important aspect was the recognition that the time has come for an open, transparent and honest conversation about the future of Ireland. This was put in perspective by English journalist Paul Gosling now local resident and author of ‘A New Ireland’, who presented the raw facts on Brexit. His views were reinforced by Prof. Jim Dornan, chair of the University of Ulster’s Health and Life Sciences and a member of the Unionist tradition, on the need for open dialogue and resolution.
Looking around the Conference Centre, at what was billed as ‘one of the largest political gatherings in recent years’, it was interesting to see the reaction to these opinions from the audience sitting around me. The importance of the event and the subject matter was obvious, it had attracted well over 1500 delegates and all of us had come together in our various capacities to share a big conversation about the future of Ireland. However, I was also struck by another thought how the place facilitated this process – the actual procedure of ‘people power’ – without a resource such as the ICC, the potential for this type of event would have been severely constrained.
The ‘placemaker’ in me will always ponder that when creating or upgrading our buildings or cities we cannot do so without having a deep understanding of how people will use them. The ICC was expanded in recent years to provide a 2000-seater convention centre to the original Waterfront Hall, which was conceived in 1997, as a place for the people of Belfast to come together and most importantly as a sign of the city’s regeneration. If Saturday’s event is anything to go by the place is doing its job and doing it well, both functionally and symbolically. Indeed, having spoken to several delegates and speakers it was clear that this place fully complemented the purpose for this gathering. For some in the audience the scale of the space was symbolic, as it allowed a large cross-section of people to come together and as the conference progressed there was a palpable feeling in the air and amongst the audience that something truly special was taking place.
Symbolism is very important for Belfast. According to the architects RMI, the purpose of the Waterfront Hall was to reconnect the city with the river Lagan and to provoke regeneration. It was designed to draw people into this new neutral space into what was then a very divided city. I also have a personal interest since I’m currently involved in putting another long disused part of the city, the old Sirocco site, back to work. The development of Waterfront Hall and the ICC provides a useful blueprint for our project The Waterside Belfast and we could learn much from this example, as we also plan to play our part in re-connecting the city.
As all the delegates trooped out of Saturday’s momentous event; inspired, motivated perhaps even transformed by what we had heard. I couldn’t help but think that it was all was made possible by the place that is Belfast’s ICC. It also reinforced for me that the people of this remarkable city have a lot of untapped potential and it’s one that underpins my wishes for the city – Be Brilliant Belfast