Northern Ireland: Better off Pink?

Have you got one on order yet?
Have you got one on order yet?

I’m really looking forward to the Giro d’Italia coming to Northern Ireland in May.

It’s a brilliant coup to have secured the start of the race and it will be fun to learn a bit more about such an exciting and spectacular sport.

We’ve had great success lately in attracting big events: last year there was the G8 Summit, the World Police and Fire Games and the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry. This is an area where our politicians have excelled: getting behind proposals to bring visitors here, working together effectively, and using their networks to get results. We should applaud them for this. They do work hard at it and they do get results.

This performance is reflected in the latest tourism figures, which were published last week. They reveal that Programme for Government targets of 4.2 million visitors and £676 million tourist expenditure which were set for December 2014, have been met by September 2013.


It’s not very often that government targets are met, so this is cause for celebration. However delve a little deeper and there are a few more worrying statistics in the report. For example the number of overseas visitors who came on holiday, as opposed to being on business or visiting relatives and friends, actually fell during the action-packed year. The biggest factor in the rise is actually people from Northern Ireland holidaying here. So if, for example you live in Coleraine and spend a night in Belfast, you are categorised as a tourist, whether you think you are or not, and you will find yourself included in the figures. That’s fine with me – if you are staying in a hotel and eating out then your money is just as welcome as someone from Germany, Sweden or Italy.

But the lack of growth in overseas visitors is a concern and that is presumably why the Tourist Board, politicians and others are putting such efforts into making the Giro a success.

So we are being encouraged to deck out our homes, shops, restaurants in pink, which is the race colour. There is pressure on politicians who will be competing for local government and European seats during the time of the race to remove their posters from lampposts and Belfast City Council wants more than £200,000 so that empty and derelict premises passed by the riders look like thriving shops.

You get the picture. We all dress in pink for a couple of days, eat pink themed meals in pink bars, pretend there’s no political action going on, and paint over the dereliction and decay that is blighting our towns and cities.

The watching millions will be charmed by the wild beauty of the Antrim coast, they will warm to the quaintness of our streets and to a people who have taken the race to their hearts. Many may conclude that Northern Ireland is misrepresented and misunderstood and will decide to visit.

I wish the powers that be good luck with this: I hope it works. We need the money and tourism is vital to our future prosperity.

However:  a little advice. One of the biggest challenges for the PR industry is not so much coming up with ideas that make people look good, but matching the image you are creating firmly in reality. Get that wrong and the whole exercise can backfire to such an extent that you end up causing damage instead of boosting your reputation.

This has certainly been our experience here: yes great things happened last year. But there was rioting during the Police and Fire Games, and widespread disorder throughout the year which culminated in Northern Ireland featuring on Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. So let’s not be delusional about this. There’s a reason why people don’t come here on holiday and taking down posters of Anna Lo, Diane Dodds, Alex Attwood and Martina Anderson is not going to alter that, and is when you think about it, insulting to all those good people. As if anyone watching in Italy would decide, after all, not to come here when they discover what the SDLP candidate for the European elections looks like!

No the reality is that disorder and instability are symptoms of a lack of political progress. And tourism will only take off when that is addressed.

I’ve no problem whatsoever in the authorities pretending that everything is just terrific here – and I’ve got my pink shirt all washed and ironed already.  I just wish they would put in just a bit more work to actually make it so.


Ross Kemp on our Extreme World

Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!
Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!

There’s a burly bald guy on the TV wearing shades and he is jogging down a street looking like he means business. And then you look a bit closer. That’s not a real hard man – just look at the clobber for a start – you don’t get that kind of gear in TK Maxx. When he takes his dark glasses off he just doesn’t have the eyes. You know what I mean: the cold, dead, merciless eyes of people who have done seriously bad things. We have that kind everywhere, even in government.

Yes, that’s not a gangster. It’s the actor turned journalist Ross Kemp. And look, aren’t those the Ardoyne shops, just to the right of the screen? Yes indeed they are. For Mr Kemp is in town to film the latest episode of his Extreme World series.

Extreme World is about “the most dangerous places in the world” The current series takes us to Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and the slums of Rio. Last time around he was in the Congo and Pakistan. But today, right there on the telly, this is “Our Time, Our Place” and there’s Ross with his camera crew at Twaddell Avenue watching teenagers throw rocks at cars.

This was not quite what the powers that be had in mind when they said they wanted to stimulate the film industry here. Nor will the scenes that followed be repeated in the Tourist Board’s marketing materials. In terms of dismantling Northern Ireland’s positive image, this was about as damaging as it can possibly get.

But it is worth watching again and again, if only because it gives us a compelling insight into what the rest of the world, especially people in the rest of the UK actually think of us and if this sort of programme does not help to wake politicians up from their collective inability to resolve conflict nothing will.

Let’s start with just one minor detail: the supreme irony that in the very week that a senior Orange man went to war on the Irish language, that an English broadcaster felt the need to use subtitles when interviewing loyalists in north Belfast. That in itself is worth thinking about. I doubt it would happen in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool. The use of subtitles is a sign of just how much viewers regard Northern Ireland as an alien place, certainly not part of their world, a very different Extreme World.

The reality is that people can fly the flag and feel as British as they like, but many fellow Brits regard them as strange, alien, and yes, let’s be frank about this: frightening.

Then there were the interviews. It was almost as if Kemp’s research team had scooped up all the most incoherent, illogical and plain stupid contributors from the Nolan Show and then got them to tell us what Northern Ireland is all about, aided, as previously noted, by the occasional use of subtitles. Frankly anyone watching from anywhere else in the world must have concluded that we are all deranged.

The programme shifted from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast. In the Maiden City Kemp gulped at the damage from shrapnel and RPGs at a police barracks, before heading off in his black Mondeo to chat to Gary Donnelly of the 32 Counties Sovereignty Committee who told him why dissidents would continue with “armed struggle”.  In between we heard about punishment shootings and the activities of Republicans Against Drugs.

Then we were on the peace walls in north and west Belfast. Viewers from elsewhere will have been horrified to note that there are now more than there were before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And surely too, they would have been astonished to notice how many people were up so early on the morning of the Twelfth both to be offended and to give offence.

What a place!

Of course many people here will argue that Kemp doesn’t understand. He has no real insight into their grievances and issues. That is not the point at all.

What we were getting was an insight into how others see us, it is nothing whatsoever to do with how we would like to be portrayed, or indeed how we truly are. And what others will have taken from the show was that Northern Ireland is a divided, bitter, violent, ugly, hate-filled place locked in its past, and dominated by a tribal rivalry which is utterly incomprehensible to the outside world and totally alien to it.

When you strip it all down that is how we were portrayed and that is how we will continue to be seen unless and until outstanding issues are resolved.

What will especially have struck those in the rest of the UK is the cost of the rioting – £25 million. At a time of massive cutbacks in public services why on earth, they will say to themselves, should we continue to subsidise a place we prop up, in order to help fund the cost of mayhem?