Citizen Ship Belfast 2013. Nos 23.
Belfast City Hall, merely a symbol of British culture?
I happened to be up in Belfast, just last Sunday with a few messages to do. My walk took me from the Cathedral Quarter, through the quiet streets, as far as the City Hall. Something made me cross the road to go take a look at the symbols, the statues, the emblems and the architecture. Often accused by Republicans, of being very, imperialistic, colonial and only a space (until recently) to be British in, the city hall sits amongst us. Does that accusation ring true today?
I’m not so sure that it does, for if we analysed the architecture and removed the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and European architectural influences, what would we be left with that is essentially British? Very little, and certainly nothing that could be described as especially original or local to Belfast or the culture of Belfast.
The elements of this kind of architecture could be found in Rome, in Paris, in America, in Washington, in Berlin and many other European cities. So in some ways the accusation of absolute British symbolism at our Belfast City Hall is quite possibly mistaken, missing the point, that there is nothing original or essentially British about the plaques, the statues, the shapes and style, but only their subject matter. Only the content and meaning of who the statues represent, shapes our view of the City Hall as being a visual “Brit-Fest”.
This narrow level of art and architecture appears all over the world and represents a particular time, along with our present flags, whether they are American, German, Greek, Irish or British. If you were living in a newly unified political state, post 1860, you had to “whip up” a new flag. Invent, fabricate, manufacture, a new image for that age and that time. So in that sense, all these modern flags, along with African flags, could be brought together as a whole, as they are saying the same thing: “This is us. The new brand, building on the old.” Though none of these flags were ever chosen through consensus.
The lack of democratic consensus is a common factor throughout all these flag designs, including the British flag, but more importantly, the Irish flag. Who gave birth to its tri-colour design and who removed the “orange” through the mere use of language?
Did you know that the colour of the original flag associated with Ireland was a dark blue, through its association with Saint Patrick?
In administrative terms, during the Victorian era, in Manchester, Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, most American cities, Canada, South Africa, Scandinavia, Italy, Germany, Spain, and almost everywhere else, this basic style was in vogue. The visual styling that shaped our city hall. Greek and Romanesque, columns, cupolas, domes and marble statues dominated the horizons of local government. Even Dublin is no different today.
I think what the SDLP and Sinn Fein have failed to really notice is that the City Hall isn’t really celebrating Britishness. The main thing, by far, that the City Hall is celebrating is industrial and commercial success.
If a tricolour flew over the city hall in Belfast, tomorrow, with the union flag and the flag of the European Parliament, what would have changed? Would our means of governance have changed? No. Would our constitution have changed? No. Would our laws have changed? No? Our Rights? Our national flag? No.
Nothing would have changed, other than the recognition of something beyond party politics.
Only changes of perception would have occurred in our minds. It would just be another national flag, flying over another dome, pillars and set of statues, in another European City.
It is only through feeling secure within ourselves that we will ever be able to fly these three flags over our city hall, in Belfast. It is therefore the challenge to Sinn Féin and the SDLP to help make us all feel less jittery, about flags in general, by acting with more maturity and far sighted generosity, in future.
After a while, all these images of empire/or nation, (British or Irish), start to look the same. Yes, we are told that these symbols mean something, but what do they actually mean? They are symbols of power and control. They are placed there to remind us who is in charge, for it certainly isn’t us. These symbols are just a means to an end. They provide a visual backdrop, to the political construct, we are told is democracy. Other than telling us who is boss, all these symbols do is provide the visual trappings of power and an imagined sense of continuity.
Therefore, to be so touchy about a flag is to miss the point. Who is in charge? If there is no debate in the matter, then why did the riots occur? The answer, no doubt, can be found elsewhere.
By Randall Stephen Hall ©
Citizen Ship Belfast 2013. Nos 23.