If there’s one thing I like (and there may only be one thing I like), it’s places that challenge and change your preconceptions and your ideas of what that place is like. I’ve experienced this in a few locations: Glasgow’s warmth and friendliness – not to mention the attractiveness of parts of the city – were a genuine surprise; the hustle and bustle of Delhi is not, as some would have you believe, something to escape as soon as one arrives in India; North Nicosia is not simply a dust-blown backwater, but rather it is a dynamic, exciting and welcoming (half-) city that more visitors to the island of Cyprus should take the time to explore, even if only for the kebabs. So when I found out I would be moving to Northern Ireland, I was hopeful that it, too, would sweep away a few of my pre-conceived ideas.
As a child of the 1990s, two key moments in 1998 helped to shape my image of Northern Ireland as a juvenile observer from the outside – the tragic events of that August in Omagh, and the momentous signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I have no intention of focusing on either event here, but they serve to illustrate the conflicting vision of Northern Ireland that a young Englishman trying to make sense of the world might have had – was Northern Ireland a fierce, intimidating place locked in the past and to be avoided, or was it forward-looking, on the up and open to outsiders?
My first visit to Northern Ireland came in 2008, a working visit that offered little chance to see the real Ulster beyond the Premier Inn on Belfast’s Alfred Street and the short drive from the city centre down the Ormeau Road to Forestside. That excursion always felt like a wasted opportunity. My naive younger self allowed my judgement to be clouded by old stereotypes and notions of a violent past that prevented me from taking the chance to do any exploring when it came along. My thought process was something along the lines of ‘this probably isn’t a good place to get lost’. And when I left, I didn’t know if I would ever be back.
But I did come back.
Anyone who has spent any kind of time in Belfast city centre, whether a local or simply as a visitor, will know it is daft to allow yourself to feel intimidated by it. It’s more than daft, it’s unfair. It’s more than just unfair, though. It’s illogical. Belfast city centre functions in the same way as most others in the UK and Ireland, and Northern Ireland as a whole has one of the lowest rates of crime in Europe. It’s worth reiterating that – Northern Ireland has a low crime rate. And Belfast is warm, welcoming and steeped in fascinating, if at times sad or even troubling, history.
Now that circumstances mean I must build the next stage of my life here, I’m just getting started with this little country. Truth be told, there is so much to be discovered and so much to learn. Every time I catch a glimpse of the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes or glance in the direction of the Belfast Hills or hear a distant roar from Ravenhill Stadium, I know I have every right to be excited about where I live and what experiences lie ahead.