The DUP have spoken out against a planned James Connolly walking trail starting in the grounds of Belfast city hall, stating people would be “tripping over each other” and raising concerns around signs with “political symbols”.
Belfast councillors were asked to consider a request from the exhibition company Redhead to install an interactive sign on a bollard in front of city hall, which would act as the starting point for a heritage trail examining the socialist republican’s life in Belfast from 1911 to 1916.
At the recent meeting of the Strategic Policy and Resources committee, DUP Alderman Brian Kingston said his party had a “number of concerns” including political symbolism on the proposed sign.
He said: “Other tours would be likely to ask for meeting points and plaques and QR codes for them, and this could set a precedent. We do think if something is being done for cultural tourism it would make sense to have a combined sign for a number of tours together rather than have a proliferation of them.”
He added: “From this time of year, for six months, people are regularly sitting on the lawns at city hall, even sunbathing, and just enjoying rest. If people are wandering about looking at a phone, tripping over somebody, or walking up to somebody, that might cause concern.”
He said: “On the sign produced for this, we notice the use of the starry plough. This has been used by various republican organisations, and is currently proclaimed by the INLA as their standard, and is used on flags. We have very strong concerns about the use of that symbol.”
He asked the matter to be deferred to assess the number of tours starting at city hall, and to assess whether all could be incorporated into a common sign. He also asked for a further discussion on the placing of a sign.
Sinn Fein Councillor Ciaran Beattie said: “I think this is a very exciting project, and I just wish there were more like it in the city.”
He added: “I don’t think anyone should have anything to fear in it. The starry plough is an Irish Citizens volunteer flag from 1914, it hasn’t anything to do with any current relevant group.
“No one is going to trip over anything, it is going to be on your phone. There is no proposal to put anything on the building of city hall, it will be on a post, so that will not come into it in terms of the listed grading of the building.”
He said: “Politics aside, this is a positive proposal for the city in terms of trying to deal with the recovery, and moving tourists around the city.”
Alliance councillor Nuala McAllister said her party did not object to the Connolly trail, but wished to defer the matter for party group leaders to discuss a policy on installments in the city halls grounds “to make sure it is an inclusive area”.
Alliance supported the deferral proposal, which passed by 10 votes to 8.
Redhead have delivered a number of projects in Belfast, including the Visitors Exhibition at city hall, the Ulster Scots Visitor Centre, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland Visitor Centre and the James Connolly Visitor Centre itself.
A representative from Redhead told the committee: “In all of these projects, where there is a politically sensitive dimension, we work to a set of principles as defined by the Community Relations Council for remembering events, specifically in relation to events in the decade of centenaries.”
He said the city hall location was “very much about setting the context of Belfast in 1911,” with Connolly only appearing at the end of the virtual presentation.
The project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has 13 proposed locations along the trail and will have an associated smart phone app. The trail is planned to move from city hall out to Custom House steps, Sailortown, York Street, back to the city centre and then west to Conway Mill, finishing at the Connolly family home on Falls Road. It will last between 90 minutes and two hours.
A council report states: “The sign is not a commemorative installation. Its aim is to provide a physical trigger point for delivery of an augmented reality smartphone app that will deliver dynamic interpretive content.
“Once triggered using the QR code on the sign, the lawns at city hall will become a virtual interpretive space. Four panels will ‘pop-up’ virtually on the west lawn, and four on the east lawn.
“The panels will set the social, economic, political and cultural context of Belfast in 1911 when Connolly arrived to live and work in the city. The city hall grounds is the ideal location to deliver this type of interpretive content. It is an ideal location for visitors to start the tour around the city, using the app for navigation and interpretation and also a printed map for guidance.”