Transforming public spaces for inclusion: Paul Mullan

Transforming public spaces for inclusion: Paul Mullan
20 March 2023

As part of the Imagine Festival in Belfast, Dr Paul Mullan (director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund) gave a talk about how Belfast City Council has reshaped the city hall as a public space to speak to all of its citizens, achieved through a process of reimagination and civic engagement.

Mullan started by asking a central question: “How do we remember better?” By showing examples of murals from loyalist as well as republican communities, he explained that local communities often show a very selective history, with complexities left out: “They show the bits that suit their argument and do not necessarily express a wider understanding of history.”

Mullan spoke about the Diamond War Memorial in Derry/Londonderry. This statue, dedicated to the citizens of the city that lost their lives in military service during World War I, was constantly being attacked by nationalist youth, who felt that it had nothing to do with them. But after an investigation into the names presented on the memorial, it turned out that they were almost equally divided between loyalist and republican families. This led to a totally different understanding of the memorial from then on. 

Mullan focused on the reimagining of Belfast City Hall. He described its opening in 1906 as a presentation of a “citadel of Unionism”. This was also reflected in the memorialising process in and around the building, which drew primarily on the British Crown and Empire. 

Mullan then explained that while the demographics of Belfast had changed following the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, there was little sign of change within the city hall itself. This lasted until 1997, when the Unionists lost their electoral control of the city council for the first time. From then, more and more Belfast city councillors felt uncomfortable with the dominant Unionist cultural expressions within and around the city hall. 

In the years that followed the question to be answered was: “How could the space for a more plural engagement be created?” Mullan explained how the council’s community relations office worked to address this, with constructive civic engagement. 

For the decade of centenaries (2012–2023), the principles for remembering were introduced by the Community Relations Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund in October 2011. These principles had to make sure that the celebrations during the decade of centenaries would be broad and inclusive. The principles for remembering are the following:

  1. start from the historical facts
  2. recognise the implications and consequences of what happened
  3. understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist
  4. show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period
  5. all to be seen in the context of an “inclusive and accepting society”

The adoption of the principles ensured that all parties would get some form of cultural self-expression. From here, as Mullan explained, the city council took control of any event held within the city hall. Mullan said that remembering was now not about exclusion but about more inclusion. Here, the city council came up with “the three R’s”: relocate, rebalance, and re-represent. 

For example, objects were relocated from contentious spaces in the city hall to the new exhibition space, where they could be contextualized. Furthermore, new items like stained-glass windows were introduced, and they expressed a wider, more diverse range of stories. 

A stained glass window: “Not as Catholics or Protestants. Not as Nationalists or Unionists. But as Belfast workers standing together.” Belfast City Hall. © Thomas BOUEILH

Mullan also briefly touched upon a similar approach at the Ulster Museum. With various examples from their exhibitions, Mullan demonstrated that the museum is paying more attention to the plurality of Northern Ireland society. 

For Mullan, “we remember better” by following three principles. First, remembering needs to be plural. Second, remembering needs to be for the future. Third, remembering needs to be representational. 

Dr Mullan’s talk was informative and inspiring. He showed the importance of looking at history from a wider perspective, as everyone has his or her own experience of it. Furthermore, living in a plural, democratic society means that there will be different voices on everything. As Mullan explained well, public spaces are better served as inclusive not exclusive ones, and positive transformation is possible through sound principles and proactive engagement with communities.

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