Getting on the whirlimagig at City Hall has been much more geographically challenging than my first outing back in the late eighties.Then I represented West Belfast and I insisted on getting my passport stamped and nosebleed tablets delivered before I ventured into any other part of our great city.
This time round, the entire length and breadth of Belfast is my stomping ground – thanks to the embedded peace and the generosity of those across the divide.
Thus, on Friday last I found myself for the first time visiting the home of Harlequins rugby club – which can trace its roots back to 1890 – in the heart of South Belfast.
The prudent folk who run the club – which is also used by Naomh Bríd GAC in one of the most exciting partnerships between sporting codes in Ireland – have been squirrelling some funds away for the day when they would have to recover their 3G hockey pitch. Turns out, though, that they’ve come up a little shy of their £200k target. Which is where the Council, led by former rugby starlet Tom Ekin of the Alliance Party, could step in. For last week, councillors agreed to divide up evenly across the city a £5m neighbourhood investment fund which can provide anything from £15,000 to around £200,000 for worthy projects.
It’s likely that the money will be divided up between the four parts of Belfast, with each picking up £1.25m. Our hope is that groups which apply for these funds can find matching contributions to make this money go as far as possible – while we dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s on the larger multi-million pound capital investment fund.
With hockey, bowls, rugby and GAA being played at Harlequins, I suspect this is very much what the New Belfast should look like. Let’s hope their commitment to building the city with sport extends to continuing community outreach – anyone for floodlit soccer in the summer?
Fresh from my first Harlequins visit, I went on a roll, skipping across town to watch my first game at the Oval, home of the mighty Glentoran FC.
An old pal of this column, Terence Brannigan, has been appointed Chair of the Glens, which recently became a trust to stave off the administrators and to better build for the future in these parlous times for football clubs.
I was a guest of the Chairman and got to enjoy a cracking game from the directors’ seats on the halfway line against a stronger and swifter Ballymena outfit (sorry, Terence – a bit of work to do on the field too). We met Westie Gerry Ward, whose son Sean had a good game for the home side, and Ballymurphy’s very own Joe Reynolds, who passionately follows the Cock and Hens home and away.
Terence has a magical idea to move Glentoran from the crumbling confines of the sprawling Oval site, hit hard by many decades of underinvestment, and to pop the team into a fit-for-
purpose new stadium in the Titanic Quarter. There, the team would still line out in the shadow of those mighty yellow cranes.
Will that happen? I’m not sure, but it would certainly enable Terence to realise his dream of seeing fans from Andersonstown, the Market and Short Strand – who made the pilgrimage to the Oval of a Saturday pre-69 – return in numbers. And then we really would have a Belfast United team.
Along with me for the ride on Saturday was my big bro who hadn’t been at the Oval since ’69. He was there for the famous ’67 game when the great Eusebio had to rescue European aristos Benfica from a looming 1-0 defeat with a late, late equaliser. Glentoran had earlier tamed the Lisbon Lions in the Stadium of Light in a scoreless draw. The away goals rule saw Benefica go through to the next round. Indeed, the mighty Benfica progressed to the finals of the European Cup where another Belfast boy – of the Best variety – popped up to tweak their tail. With that type of rich heritage, the future of Glentoran can only be bright.
Belfast is brimming with unbeatable heritage, magnificent people and fabulous buildings – so much of it uncelebrated. How many of our readers, for example, have ever visited the Indian Community Centre in the old Carlisle Memorial Church in North Belfast? Last week, during the Forum for Alternative Belfast planning school, young ladies were dancing reverently at the Hindu temple while a new generation of civic leaders were discussing the New Belfast. How many have been to the Oval? How many have been to a Giants’ Game? How many have been to Casement Park? Stephen Nolan Tweeted last week that he has never been to a GAA game – now there’s a challenge for that bridgebuilder.
Indeed, it’s a challenge to all our bridgebuilders as we prepare for the third annual Belfast One City Conference on May 10/11: how do we create a city with no no-go areas, with no dividing walls, with no roadblocks and with no barriers?
Inviting each other to our places of sport would be a good start.