Gentrification in a Post-Conflict City: The Case of Belfast

Capital taking advantage of post-conflict opportunities is transforming Belfast, but not in the interests of working class residents

“You wouldn’t recognise that town,” my grandfather often repeats after a trip into Belfast City Centre. He is part of a generation that has witnessed decades of tumultuous change in the city since his birth in the midst of the Second World War. The old city of cinemas, dance halls and Victorian-style department stories soon gave way to a city centre marred by security searches and bomb scares, the town falling into abandoned silence after dark as people did not want to take the risk of being caught up in the violence of the Troubles. In this period, socialising often took place in a more local level, with community clubs and shabeens in various estates taking prominence over city centre bars for many people. In the last few decades, the city has once again changed as the era of ceasefires and peace agreements led to a redevelopment of Belfast city centre as an attractive retail and socialising environment. The change has been evident to me even in the less-than-twenty five years of my own life. It can even be observed through the rapid expansion of coffee shops; first it was Starbucks in Castle Court, then a Caffe Nero situated on every major corner like a sentinel and now an explosion of identikit Scandi-minimalist hipster cafes across the more fashionable areas of the city.

As one travels into Belfast from the north of the city, cranes dominate the skyline. At the turn of the year, I counted eight in a concentrated area. Most of the current phase of development centres around the city’s Cathedral Quarter, seen as a cool artistic hub that is frequented by middle-class young professionals. However, it is apparent that the city at large is in the midst of a development boom. Just south of the City Hall, not one but two massive hotel building projects are underway. Giant glass panels are currently being installed onto the monstrous edifice of the new Grand Central Hotel, an absurdly large hotel for a city of this size. Just across the street, work on the George Best Hotel is just getting underway. Just down the road, the Gallery apartment building is another new glass tower which offers small, transparent residential boxes to young professionals at an incredibly expensive (for Belfast) rate. A few miles away on the Ormeau Road, a similar project called Portland 88 is underway. While tourism has indeed increased enormously in the last decade or so, it is hard to fathom how there is enough demand for so many huge hotel projects. Similarly, new office blocks are continually thrown up in spite of the fact that office space lies empty across the city. The same can be observed in the retail sector, with Northern Ireland having the highest vacancy rate of any region in the UK.1

The most significant development projects in the city are currently centred on its Cathedral Quarter. Ulster University is greatly expanding its Belfast campus in this area, seeking to move many of its courses from the relatively sleepy Jordanstown into the city centre. This has helped spark a rush on the area in terms of building as developers seek to fill the area with student accommodation and apartments, which has been a source of controversy for a number of years. Initial redevelopment plans threatened the continued existence of the Sunflower Bar, a popular spot among artists, journalists and leftists in the city. A petition to save the bar attracted thousands of signatures and the bar remains opened, but much of the surrounding area has seen speculative demolition to make room for mooted developments.2 Furthermore, local residents have questioned the validity of building expensive private student accommodation in an area of the city that has long been crying out for expanded social housing.3 However, in the logic of gentrification as a process of the transformation of the built environment under capitalism such projects are not considered worthy. In this instance, Neil Smith’s concept of the ‘rent gap’ is a useful one. As the amenities of the area become more popular with the city’s middle class, and as it prepares to become a hub of student activity in the next few years, there has emerged a gap between the actual value of the area and the potential ground rent. Thus, this gap will be filled with drastic physical modifications of the area to match the social changes that are ongoing.4

The most recent redevelopment scheme in the area has prompted the establishment of the Save CQ activist campaign in opposition. Castlebrooke investments seeks to build yet more office space, apartments and two further hotels in the area formerly known as Royal Exchange. Save CQ activists oppose the development on the grounds that the widespread demolitions it would entail go against the distinct historical character of the area and would replace “independent business and arts organisations with generic retail and offices.” As is the case with most gentrification projects, it is the cultural and artistic character of the area in question that is used as a selling point by developers to entice affluent buyers into the area whilst the logic of gentrification simultaneously undermines the conditions of this local culture. This is evident in this case also, as seen in a recent attempt at a viral marketing campaign. A few weeks ago, buildings around the intersection of Donegal Street, Waring Street and North Street at the heart of the Cathedral Quarter began to be covered in black triangular stickers bearing the initials TBC. These stickers indeed spread like a virus - soon hundreds blighted building walls, prompting calls via social media for passers-by to tear them off. The stickers (and the Instagram page they direct to) point to an attempt to capture the aesthetics of an underground marketing campaign, perhaps for an artistic or musical venture. However, some digging from local activists proved this was not the case. The website affiliated with the slogan was registered to a London-based communications firm, Stepladder, which also employed local photographers to capture street art in the area, as well as images from the Belfast Culture Night event. These were then cropped and put onto the TBC Instagram account in stylised black and white. Local film-makers also confirmed that they were approached by Castlebrooke developments to capture “the creative vibe of Belfast” for promotional videos. Although no direct connection has been made, it is clear that there is a concerted effort from various parties to use the artistic image of the Cathedral Quarter to launder a trendy image for consumers while arts and artists themselves have suffered from defunding and struggle further with the increasing rents that such developments inevitably bring.

The blog by a local activist Adam Turkington makes frequent reference to companies and executives being London-based, characterising them as outsiders to Belfast. I think that this is something to be somewhat wary of. Of course, it is likely that executives behind these projects have spent no considerable time in Belfast and seek only to appropriate an idealised image of it for corporate profit. However, the danger of characterising these machinations into a parochial narrative is troublesome and one that activists need to be careful with. If anyone knows about the struggles of trying to subsist in an area being gouged by gentrifying profiteers, it is people living in London. Although campaign groups and their conflicts with developers are often covered as local issues in media, there are enough similarities in the general blueprint of how such plans are carried out that activists from across the country (and indeed the globe) can learn from each other’s struggles. Indeed, as Smith argues, gentrification needs to be understood both through the analysis of local housing markets and through an understanding of uneven development within the national and even global economy.5 Thus, building networks of solidarity is vital. Furthermore, it is important to tease out how gentrification projects in various cities across the country are linked. As London becomes increasingly expensive and unliveable for millions of ordinary people, attempts to sell regional cities such as Belfast as a more affordable alternative increase. Thus, the speculative developments and luxury properties in London - which are sold to international investors to be left empty as they accumulate value and which make accommodation increasingly unaffordable for workers in the city – begets developments such as those we have seen in Belfast in an attempt to ‘modernise’ the city and appeal to the ever-expanding market of those who cannot afford to live comfortably in the capital. Moreover, the question is not only one of people being priced out of London within a context of both global and national uneven and combined development but one of capital itself being “priced out” and needing to find other rent gaps to exploit.

Of course, it is also important to examine the uniqueness of this specific case, given the specific history of Belfast that distinguishes it from cities on the UK mainland. Indeed, the purpose of this piece is to articulate how the contours of the Troubles and subsequent peace-building efforts have shaped how gentrification schemes have been presented to the public and how the legacy of violence and division augments the difficulties that they bring. As elucidated by Marxist historian Brian Kelly, who is based in the city, the Good Friday Agreement came in 1998 with the attached promise of a ‘peace dividend’ – the promise of investment and development in Northern Ireland as a consequence and reward for building peace. Kelly, in a critique of the emphasis on expensive tourism attractions in city development, argues that this places the Northern Ireland peace process as a central example of neoliberal conflict transformation models.6 Placing development at the heart of peace has often led to uncritical examinations of how this has been carried out. The addition of new shops, upmarket restaurants and cafes and now a range of luxury apartment blocks and hotels is presented as a sign of “how far we’ve come” from the days of police search terminals at either end of Royal Avenue. This narrative, that middle-class consumerism is the solution to sectarian division, was no better exemplified by the Backin’ Belfast campaign that came about after the loyalist flag protests in 2012.7 The campaign, which was set up by the city council and backed by local retail groups, sought to encourage people to continue shopping in the city following the disruption of the protests. Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker chronicle these uncritical responses going back to the beginning of the peace process, citing delirious reports about Bill Clinton’s promise to “pump more than £100 million into Northern Ireland’s economy” and visits to Belfast by Virgin owner Richard Branson in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum.8 Indeed, it is not insignificant that the first public engagement from Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness as First and Deputy First Minister in 2007 was the official opening of the IKEA store on the outskirts of the city.

A recent discussion I chaired with Baker and fellow academic Sean Brennan was instructive in detailing the contours of the neoliberal peace model, with Baker describing the process as representing the integration of Northern Ireland into the orbit of international capital. It is worth returning to Smith’s concept of the ‘rent gap’ which was briefly discussed earlier. Decades of conflict in Northern Ireland saw the running down of urban centres such as Belfast. This meant that there were significant ‘rent gaps’ in the city upon the advent of peace, opening Belfast up for significant urban transformation and embourgeoisement in the decades following the Good Friday Agreement. Smith talks about the ‘Catch-22’ of gentrification, that is, how under capitalism the price of the investment which areas which have suffered from historical disinvestment (the disinvestment that produces the rent gap) need is displacement and social cleansing 10. This is useful to consider. As Northern Ireland came out of the Troubles, a demand for normalisation of the city was both natural and understandable. But this model of investment has come at a price; the prioritisation of luxury hotels and apartments as well as fancy eateries and retailers over much needed social housing has left an increasing class divide in the city. The attachment of such developments to the peace process has meant that it was sold, and generally accepted as, all in the name of progress.

This is analysis has been developed in academic and activist circles over a number of years. However, the inadequacy of corporate ‘modernisation’ as a route out of the Troubles is becoming more obvious. Campaigns such as Backin’ Belfast and the general responses to incidents such as the flag protests have worked to code sectarian division as a working class phenomenon. Thus, as expensive developments and luxury amenities are portrayed as harbingers of a shared post-conflict society, the peace process is decidedly characterised as a bourgeois endeavour. Indeed, there is a sense among a lot of the city’s middle class that they stand above the sectarian machinations of local politicians and ignorant, reviled lower orders who continue to support them. The perpetuation of this sentiment, in conjunction with the obviously exclusive (and by nature excluding) dimensions of gentrification is in danger of creating a city that is a playground for affluent consumers while the working class are relegated to sectarianised enclaves. Attempts to create employment in the city have largely been focused on the proliferation of call-centres, lured to the region through Invest NI grants, which offer low paid work in insecure, and often punitive, conditions. This is another pillar in the neoliberal growth model steadfastly embraced by the Northern Ireland Assembly prior to its collapse in early 2017. While sectarian tit-for-tats between Sinn Fein and the DUP continued, one thing that united the parties was their desire to reduce corporation tax rates in the region.

The gentrification agenda in Belfast has been of huge detriment to the increasing numbers on social housing waiting lists in the city. As previously alluded to, developments around the Ulster University expansion were met with opposition for taking up space that had been designated for social housing. In recent months, a similar scenario has unfolded in the Gassworks area of the city as land previously zoned for social housing development has been instead earmarked by Belfast City Council to allow the building office blocks and the extension of a hotel. Meanwhile, the numbers of those in crisis predicaments increases and it is noticeable to anyone walking through the city centre how many people are homeless and destitute. Dawn Foster articulates the sectarianised nature of the social housing crisis in Northern Ireland, where Catholics wait on average six months longer than their Protestant counterparts to be housed and waiting times have increased for both sides. Attempts to establish cross-community housing projects have also recently been met with trouble, as seen recently in East Belfast’s Cantrell Close where Catholic residents were forced out of their homes. The PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) have said that the UVF is responsible. This represents the sharp edge of intimidation tactics that usually amount to the erecting of sectarian flags on lampposts in certain areas of the city as a territorial marking. However, there is little will from the police to remove flags and the dysfunctional governing situation, as well as the marriages-of-convenience between mainstream political figures and paramilitary groups mean that there is no strategy to deal with this issue. As working class communities have been left behind, the vacuum is often filled with sectarianised organised crime.

Gentrification in Belfast seems on the surface to be no different to how the phenomenon has played out in other cities. However, the continued impact of a violent, contested past and the messy web of political and social division left in its wake compounds the impact it has had on working class communities and is increasingly difficult to unravel for those seeking to move beyond neoliberalism. The prevalence of suicide in the region (more have died due to suicide since the Good Friday Agreement than were killed in the conflict) points to a desperation brought about by social degradation and a crisis of mental health that authorities have seemingly no comprehension of how to deal with. In short, this is a city which is struggling to deal with the trauma of conflict while the promises of a ‘peace dividend’ to lift its inhabitants from deprivation has largely not materialised. As David Capener pointed out recently in The Guardian, economic inequality in the city has increased drastically. He states that “other than London and Aberdeen there are more multimillionaires in Belfast than anywhere else in the UK.” They are living in close proximity to some of the most deprived communities in Western Europe. The neoliberal peacebuilding model and the gentrification that comes with it has added a shiny veneer of hipster trendiness to Belfast but, although it threatens to change the character of the city irrevocably, it does nothing to alleviate the long-standing social crises that exist under the surface in a society that remains divided. In fact, it is exacerbating them.

  1. Vacancy rates decreased by 0.5% in the last reporting a few months back but are still at 14% across the region. 

  2. The wording from Stuart Lunn, who set up the petition, is interesting to observe as an example of how gentrification is seen as way to bringing the city together in the post-conflict era. 

  3. For a wider discussion of the Carrick Hill social housing campaign and a more general examination development in the area see Andrew Grounds and Brendan Murtagh, ‘The neoliberalisation of the Cathedral Quarter and its contestations,’ (QUB, 2015) 

  4. Neil Smith, ‘Gentrification and the rent gap’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol.77, no.3, (1987) pg.462-463 

  5. Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 72 

  6. Brian Kelly, ‘Neoliberal Belfast: Disaster ahead?’, Irish Marxist Review, vol.1 no.2 (2012) 

  7. Loyalist groups protested against the decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag above the City Hall to designated days, in line with most of the rest of the UK. This led to a few days of unrest in the city and a demonstration outside City Hall every Saturday, although this dwindled quickly enough. The case is an illuminating example of the cynicism at the heart of Northern Irish politics. Originally, Sinn Fein brought a motion before the council that sought to abolish flying the Union flag altogether. This was of course opposed by the unionist parties. However, the centrist Alliance party brought forward the designated days that passed through the council. This was exploited by the DUP and others to mobilise protests against the party which led to attacks on Alliance Party offices and death threats made against then-East Belfast MP Naomi Long. Long, who had unexpectedly defeated then DUP leader Peter Robinson for the seat in 2010, was herself deposed at the next election by the DUP’s Gavin Robinson, the sole unionist candidate in the race, following years of sectarianized attacks on Long and her party. DUP-dominated Lisburn Council had meanwhile flown the Union flag on designated days for up to a decade prior to the manufactured outrage in Belfast.  

  8. Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker, ‘The media, the peace dividend and ‘bread and butter’ politics’, in Political Quarterly, vol.83, no.2, (2012) pg.292 

  9. Ibid 

  10. Smith, The New Urban Frontier, p. 161