Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review of 2011

2011 was the year that the Irish Blog Awards came to Belfast and shut up shop, TEDxBelfast was run locally, and the RISE sculpture (better known as the Balls on the Falls, or the Westicles) finally appeared on the Broadway roundabout. NI newspaper consumption continued to fall and former editor Steve Dyson reviewed the local papers.

Children of the Revolution (Bill Rolston), Turas (Colin Neill) and Evangelical Journeys - choice and change in a Northern Ireland religious subculture (Claire Mitchell and Gladys Ganiel) were good reads. In March, I helped give away 48 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as part of World Book Night. Philip Orr’s play After Dresden had a public reading in Fitzroy Presbyterian church and remains a thought-provoking piece of theatre.

Talking to Rob about the Eleventh Night bonfire in King George V Playing Fields in East Belfast (mp3)

After a night of bonfires, walking around Short Strand with the Lord Mayor and a morning of following District Lodge Number 6 around Belfast, I spent a fascinating afternoon with friends at President McAleese’s 12 July garden party in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, her Phoenix Park Dublin residence. Visiting the set of children’s puppet show Pajanimals was fun too.

Increasingly I got wound up about education in Northern Ireland.

Both the outgoing Presbyterian moderator (Norman Hamilton) and the incoming one (Ivan Patterson) agreed to interviews in early June and spoke about their experiences and hopes. And I got Occupy Belfast to explain why they had set up camp opposite Stan's St Anne's Cathedral.

In the run up to the May 2011 elections, I posted interviews with representatives from smaller partieséirígí, Green Party, IRSP, PUP, Socialist Party and Workers Party – as well as independents Dawn Purvis and Stephen Stewart.

There was much charting of the make up of the Assembly election candidates, and analysis of the cost of getting elected and the price of postal votes.

Technically, the BNP are running the highest proportion of female candidates (1 out of their total of 3 candidates = 33.3%). Alliance are next with 31.8% female candidates, then Sinn Fein (27.5%).

A post about Martin McGuinness' matter-of-fact claim at a town hall event that the murdered PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr had been a Sinn Fein voter ended up on the front of the lunchtime edition of the Belfast Telegraph a couple of hours later.

Through sheer bloody-mindedness – and sugar intake – I was one of only eight people to witness the NI result of the AV referendum, and filmed it for posterity!

A lot of party conferences were attended and covered in posts on Slugger O’Toole. I suggested that Sammy Wilson's conference jokes were contrary to the DUP leader's speech and spent a day up at the Assembly just before Christmas (asking MLAs to give their end of term report for the work of the Assembly). Can you name all sixteen?

End of term report: how do MLAs assess @niassembly performance? (mp3)

Our electric blanket must have come fairly close to setting the bed (and the house?) on fire.

Four weeks on and the Ulster Bank website is still encouraging Mac users to Dowload [sic] security software.

Over the year, it’s been good to see The Dock taking steps forward in the Titanic Quarter as it puts in place a community hub and a space for faith possibly on an actual boat moored behind the Odyssey. I’ll finish this post with the words handed around by one of the The Dock’s chaplains – Chris Bennett – this time last year at the end of a Dock Walk. His prayer for 2011 still rings true for 2012.

Dear Lord, please give me

A few friends who understand me and remain my friends;

A work to do which has real value,
without which the world would be the poorer;

A mind unafraid to travel, even though the trail be not blazed;

An understanding heart;

A sense of humour;

Time for quiet, silent meditation;

A feeling of the presence of God;

The patience to wait for the coming of these things,

With the wisdom to recognize them when they come.


Happy New Year.


Finishing the year with some recommendations of businesses that I value. (You could also read that as finishing the year with a round up of blog posts that never got finished!)

We finally got our house in East Belfast sold in late autumn, and moved house in Lisburn (still referred to as “Belfast’s bedroom”) in early November. A to B Removals are strongly recommended. John Thompson, Kenny and the guys have moved me four times now, take extraordinary care of furniture, have their own storage, and are very agreeable to work with. Serving Lisburn, Downpatrick, Crossgar and beyond - 028 4483 2514.

Five favourite restaurants of the year. Lisburn’s Square Bistro tucked in between Next and Argos in Lisburn Square is a great spot. The food is delicious, the service is good, and the staff are child-friendly. Five miles out of town, The Pheasant on the Upper Ballynahinch Road is a little more expensive, but always a good meal. Little Wing Pizzeria are great (particularly the East Belfast/Upper Newtownards Road branch). I’ve still a soft spot for a blue cheese burger (and sometimes even just an egg-burger) in the Gourmet Burger Bank on Belmont Road, East Belfast. And if you want something fast, cheap and hot at lunchtime in Belfast, check out the Cornish Pasty Trading Company in Church Street.

Holidaying in Buncrana and Derry this summer, the Tower Museum in Derry is well worth a visit. Fascinating history of the city, and the Armada exhibition captured the attention of our six year old. The Doagh Famine Village is another treasure in the north west. While a museum devoted to the Irish famine may not sound terribly appealing, there’s a much greater breadth of history covered, with enthusiastic guides and a cup of tea at the end. Find out about impact of the famine as well as learning about the traditional Irish wake, a Presbyterian meeting house, a Republican safe house, the travelling community and an Orange Hall.

Nice Day Designs features the work of Irish designer and craftmaker Ruth Crean. Based in Limerick, she upcycles second hand clothes and sells all kinds of crafts and jewellery online and in Limerick’s weekend Milk Market (a little like Belfast’s St George’s Market). Worth a look if you’re looking for a present.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Little Prince (Lyric Theatre) ... a little disappointing

The Little Prince

This afternoon’s family Christmas treat was a trip to the Lyric Theatre to the matinee performance of The Little Prince musical.

Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who was in need of a friend. Once upon a time there was a pilot who was forced to land in the Sahara desert. Both set out on journeys of discovery finding friendship and wisdom along the way.

The plot follows two intersecting story lines. Pilot Antoine (played by Kare Conradi) decides to fly off on an adventure and ends up crashing his plane in a desert. The Little Prince (Niamh Perry) lives on an asteroid B612 with its three volcanoes (which need cleaned out), one rose, and where the sun rises and sets 44 times each (Earth) day. The Little Prince goes on an adventure too, visiting other asteroids, meeting adults, and ending up on Earth in the desert with the pilot.

Production still from The Little Prince musical in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

The costumes are fabulous and sparkle against the set made up of enormous sheets of hanging lined paper onto which video and drawings are projected. It works well and integrates nicely with the show’s lighting.

Part allegory, part surreal, the plot is terribly complicated and hard to follow. On the way into the theatre, staff were handing out a free A4 sheet that summarised the storyline … perhaps a reaction to confusion among early audiences?

Foolishly, I didn’t read ahead while the house lights were up, and spent much of the first half squinting at the sheet to get some kind of hint about what was going on a couple of metres in front of me on the stage.

Sound was a problem, at least for me sitting in the third row. The slightly techno/rock score was much louder than the vocals, and there was barely any song in which it was possible to catch the full lyrics. Antoine was particularly hard to hear.

This is a problem in a musical which has no narration – other than the printed cheat sheet – to help explain the plot. Every now and again a deep bass note would make something in the rigging above resonate – there’s a frequency that needs EQed out to remove the distraction.

Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince is the most read and most translated French book of the 20th century. This musical adaptation comes from the pens and keyboards of Nicholas Lloyd Webber (son of Andrew) and James D Reid, and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre is home to its first run.

The Little Prince Musical "Welcome To B-612" by The Little Prince Musical

The music is very listenable to, but not sticky: I didn’t find myself humming any of the tunes on the way home. And at one point with a lot of singing about satellites, I half expected that a cover of Lena's Eurovision Song Contest winning Satellite might be just around the corner.

I won't be surprised if there are some tweaks to the score and direction before The Little Prince next escapes B612 and visits a stage in another city. In the meantime, I think I’ll be digging out our copy of the book and (finally) reading it to see what the story was meant to be about.

Update - Culture Northern Ireland's review.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Building Titanic Belfast - timelapse

I love the timelapse video of the construction of Titanic Belfast, the giant iceberg-shaped bow-shaped building that will be the home to the Titanic visitor experience opening in the spring.

There's also a video walkthrough of the new building, showing some aspects of the exhibitions it will contain.

via The Dock blog

Christmas morning routines - run, church, sawing, lunch - in Portrush!

As you sleepily wander around the house in your pyjamas on Christmas morning, spare a thought for 28 year old Olympic single sculling hopeful (and world silver and bronze medallist) Alan Campbell who'll be enjoying a rather more energetic Christmas. Friday's Guardian explains his routine:

I get up pretty early, usually about 6.30am. I'll have a quick bowl of cereal then straight into the car. Then I head for Portrush East Strand, where I run along the beach to the far end. There's another beach there called the White Rocks, which has the longest sand hill on the north coast of Ireland. Then I do 20 laps of the sand dune. Hopefully it's not going to be frozen over like it was last year, when I had to take a shovel with me and dig a path to get up the dune because it was -14C.

Then I run back, into the car and home for a shower before going to church. We go to the local Presbyterian church I was brought up in. I don't go to church all the time but I actually really enjoy it at Christmas. It gives me an hour's rest, an hour to sit down. Then after church I'll go straight down to my boat club where I've got two 350k [meant to say two or three 50kg] sandbags set up and I'll do shuttle runs for 40 minutes carrying them back and forth.

Then after that I'll do an hour of sawing, half an hour on both arms. I've a big bow saw and a telegraph pole I just do big cuts into. The sawing helps get that long movement back and forth with both arms. I know it's a bit Rocky IV, but that is one of my favourite movies. All I need is a picture of Ivan Drago, maybe some minders watching me while I run up the mountain. Then it'll be Christmas lunch. We have all the family over, loads of cousins and it's more of a Christmas feast: turkey, gammon, potatoes, mash, sprouts, Scottish broth, Christmas pudding. My mum really loves cooking it all and we all really go overboard.

I'm not a superstitious person, but my one thing is that in the summer in the middle of the regatta season before I go out to race I'll be sitting there with headphones on listening to Christmas music.

It reminds me of being in the car listening to music going down to do that session. As a single sculler you do spend a lot of time on your own, you do have to be highly motivated. There's a lot of single-mindedness, a lot of big-headedness and you need to get an edge from somewhere in Olympic year.

It's not that my training is better than anyone else's but it's definitely tougher. Going and running up sand dunes like that is quite hard. So when I get on to the start line I know that I've made that sacrifice at Christmas, and maybe the others don't. It just gives me confirmation that I deserve to be there.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bye bye WH Smith ...

WH Smitha nd Easons logo

WH Smith’s brand will shortly disappear from Belfast. On November 5th, Eason took over the operation of the Donegall Place WH Smith unit near Next and Marks & Spencer. In the New Year, it will close for refurbishment before reopening, branded as Eason. The existing Eason store further on down the street will then close.

According to the Irish Times article by Ciarán Hancock back in October, “Eason employs 26 staff in its existing store, while the WH Smith outlet has 37 employees”.

Staff in the WH Smith store were talking at lunchtime about the changeover. Some were hoping to hear tonight whether they’d still have jobs in the Spring.

Eason has boosted its presence in Belfast city centre by acquiring a leasehold property at 40-46 Donegall Place from British rival WH Smith … Eason owns the freehold on 20 Donegall Place and plans to lease it to another entity … The WH Smith store covers 1,837 square metres, roughly twice the size of its existing shop. It will continue to trade under the WH Smith brand, under licence to Eason, until January next.

This change, leaves airport outlets as WH Smith’s only presence in Northern Ireland.

Expect a good sale in WH Smith after Christmas, as well as an empty unit on Donegall Place and twenty+ fewer retail jobs.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Welcome to Wenceslas

Wenceslas has come to live with us. He's a hamster. He moved house from his breeder in East Belfast yesterday afternoon and moved into his new home. Tissue paper was provided. Over time he dragged it all down to the bottom corner of the cage. One sheet he even lifted and dropped over the edge from the raised platform to the ground floor of his compact and bijou accommodation! And while we were out of the room - but while the timelapse camera was still running - he even managed to climb upstairs without using the tube.

My first impressions are that hamsters are clever, nimble beasts, and quite adept at problem solving.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How do MLAs assess the Assembly's performance?

NI Assembly website

Having been wittering on about local political parties, campaigns, conferences and elections for a year or two, it seemed bad that I’d never been up to the public gallery in Parliament Buildings to see the sausage machine our devolved democracy in action.

You can read elsewhere about my impressions of the day I spent up at the NI Assembly earlier this weekand how anyone can turn up and see it for themselves. You can also listen to some brief clips of MLAs –including Lagan Valley’s Paul Givan and East Belfast’s Michael Copeland talking about their work and impact as MLAs.

Loitering around the Great Hall on Tuesday, I asked 16 MLAs to give a score out of ten and supply the headmaster’s comment for the Assembly’s end of term report card. Here’s what they said:

End of term report: how do MLAs assess @niassembly performance? (mp3)

Given the sample size, any statistical inference is very unscientific. However, it’s still interesting to note that DUP and Sinn Fein representatives classified performance as 4-7, whilst other parties used the range 3-6.

One other MLA criticised the lack of legislation before suggesting “it’s better than people being killed on the streets.”

(Incidentally, the NI Assembly relaunched their website on Monday and are now making a lot more information available to the public, including details of MLAs’ questions, voting record, interests and contacts. Webservice exposure of this information is in development too. Open Data comes to NI at last!)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

And The Wile Wise Men Came back a second year! (Tuesday 13 December / free tickets)

The children's nativity with a touch of Ulster Scots is back in Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church in East Belfast for a second year.

Roisin Gallagher (Mary) and Faolán Morgan (Joseph) in Dan Gordon's play And the Wile Wise Men Came

"And The Wile Wise Men Came" - Tuesday 13 December at 7pm (doors open at 6.30pm) - 149a Newtownards Road (opposite Pitt Park).

Some free tickets are still available for this year's performance of Dan Gordon's charming and interactive play from 07754840832. Last year's performance was a blast, and the kids present loved it.

Supported by Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Newry Times - a new hyperlocal online paper run by three unemployed graduates - the future of journalism?

Newry Times banner

The Newry Times, a community-based local online newspaper was launched last week by three unemployed graduates, funded through their job seekers allowance.

We’re hoping our story proves to other graduates throughout Ireland that there is things out there you can do while you’re unemployed, things that are really rewarding and exciting.

With a newspaper look to the website, which is mobile friendly, the team have made a strong start this week with over 10,000 pageviews and a range of stories with local angles covering:

I asked Paul Malone (editor) who was behind the Newry Times and what had inspired them to start up an online newspaper?

Newry Times was created by myself (Paul Malone), Emma Taylor and Declan McAteer. Our inspiration for starting it came from a number of different factors. Firstly, I have worked for several years in local newspapers and recently lost my job in one because the newspaper could no longer afford to pay me. So I found myself on the Dole.

I knew Newry was crying out for a free, online newspaper with no subscription fees or any hidden charges and Emma had a chance meeting with a Derry-based journalist who told her about his own news site. [We] all graduated with good degrees and we all have talent in different things so we decided to make a website and try to engage the local community again.

Also, online news is clearly the way forward, sales of print newspapers are dwindling at an alarming rate so it was the obvious step for us to take. We also created Newry’s first ever smart phone mobile app, so we’ve pretty much got our fingers on the pulse of technology right now.

Newry Times front page - Sunday 4 December

What kind of coverage would the paper provide for Newry and Mourne area?

We will be updating the website daily. As soon as a news story breaks we aim to have it covered and online with the hour. Of course, some weeks are “bad news weeks” and it can be hard to get content but we’re engaging the local community in other ways too with a steady stream of interesting content. (Check out Newry’s Lost Generation for an example).

With only three core staff, how would they gather material? Will being online make it easier to get community involvement in the Newry Times and its stories?

Our material comes from a number of sources. Through my time working with other local newspapers I have built up a big base of friendly contacts (with police, politicians, government officials) – as well as those, we get a steady stream of press releases from different bodies in the area.

Additionally, a huge amount of content has been sent in by our readers, there’s so many people out there who are fantastic writers and have a love of a certain subject and feel great contributing their articles about it to Newry Times and the wider community.

Of course, we also do some good old fashioned journalism, where the three of us source the latest news. We already have a number of contributors on board covering the local sport, local Newry City FC team, local pool and darts league and Gaelic news. I’ve even had a man emailing me from Bangkok asking to submit an article about how he left Newry several years ago and set up a football club over there. It’s fantastic. We’re all about engaging the local community, so it is they who will decide how popular our website becomes.

The local media is generally suffering great financial pressure. While the Newry Times doesn’t have print costs, unless they have deep pockets and run it as a hobby, will they have to rely on advertising or a paywall to the paper financially viable?

Unfortunately, print media is a dying art as I found out when I lost my job.

People we’ve spoken to now live in an age where everything is available to them right now, when they want it. People simply don’t have the patience now to wait until the weekly publication goes on to the shop shelves to find out the latest news. Why would they want to do that, especially with the popularity of Facebook, Twitter etc where news is available right now, and in many cases, from the scene of the news.

Weekly editions just have no appeal to anyone from my generation either, they’re outdated and don’t actually report on what people want to hear. They basically regurgitate press releases with a small, very small dash, of journalism thrown in on the first few pages for good measure.

We certainly don’t have deep pockets, we’re on Dole Benefits at the moment so have entirely funded this with our job seekers allowance.

We have thought long and hard about advertising but right now we have given our advertising space on Newry Times to appeals from local charities, coming up to Christmas they need all the help they can get in these tough economic times. We are thinking that eventually we might like to attract several advertisers on board, but we wont do anything just yet, we’re a community based website so we don’t want this to turn into a pop-up dominated website with just a bit of news.

We have looked into other options for funding and we’re hoping if these come to fruition we’ll never have to approach advertisers. We have been offered money from friends and family to get us off the ground but right now it simply isn’t needed.

We’ve got Declan who is an absolute IT whiz kid who is dealing with the website and maintaining it, we have Emma who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes too helping with content and promotion and then myself covering a lot of the stories.

We’re hoping our story proves to other graduates throughout Ireland that there is things out there you can do while you’re unemployed, things that are really rewarding and exciting.

Along with Donegal Daily (which is now 1 year old), the Newry Times is a promising development in the hyperlocal scene. Local news outfits are unlikely to pick up the kind of Atlantic Philanthropies funding that The Detail benefits from, but could still add much needed local seasoning to the menu served up by bigger news outlets and could gather a sizeable following in their local communities through tools like Facebook.

With continued effort and enthusiasm, hyperlocal sites could play a considerable part in the future of journalism.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

5-8 year female voice sought for NI children's animation - Driftwood Bay by Sixteen South

Sixteen South logo

Sixteen South, the Belfast BAFTA-winning children’s TV producer of puppet shows like Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Big and Small and Pajanimals (see September post visiting the set) is searching for the voice of the lead character of their new animated show Driftwood Bay.

Lily is a gung-ho free-spirited five year old who is as rough and tumble as she is sweet and cute. A real tomboy, Lily loves living on an island and is most at home outdoors. She loves getting her hands dirty, getting sand and salt water in her hair, shells in her pockets and mud on her boots.

Independent, with a curious mind and a lively imagination, Lily is very enthusiastic about the little things that other people take for granted, seeing things others don't notice and finding the fun and adventure in everything. She has an infectious love of the simple things and she never tires of them. A bit of a chatterbox, Lily is constantly talking to her best friend Gull who is always by her side.

With a history of using local talent and craft in their previous productions, Sixteen South’s creative director and executive producer Colin Williams explains:

“We’re looking for a 5-8 year old girl to voice the part of Lily, the show’s main character. No previous experience is necessary, we’re simply looking for someone who can truly capture the spirit of Lily. Ideally with a soft Northern Ireland or Scottish accent, we’re looking for a little girl with a charming gentle accent.”

Two casting sessions will be held during December to audition voices. Children will read a simple monologue, sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and have an improvised chat with the producers of Driftwood Bay. If you can’t attend the auditions, a voice reel can be sent to Sixteen South in advance of the audition dates – details of what is required are available from Julie Gardner at julie AT sixteensouth DOT tv or 028 9024 6775.

  • Tuesday 13 December, 6pm-9pm, Sixteen South Television, 7-11 Linenhall Street, Belfast, BT2 8AA
  • Thursday 15 December, 6pm-9pm, Ramada Hotel, 73 Main Street, Portrush, BT56 8BN

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dowload (sic) software from the Ulster Bank!

Dowload now - Ulster Bank

The Ulster Bank's free supply of security software is supposed to inspire confidence in its electronic banking customers. Unfortunately, poor spelling rather negates the professional pitch!

Hopefully their security is better than their spelling.

Ulster Bank electronic banking screen with 'Dowload' spelling mistake

Monday, November 21, 2011

East Belfast Speaks Out postponed until early 2012

East Belfast Speaks Out 2011

The East Belfast Speaks Out event scheduled for Wednesday 30 November has been postponed by its organisers until early 2012. The date ended up clashing with the public sector strike which would affect the venue, Ashfield Boys School.

Given the increasing support for industrial action (such as the NASUWT vote last Friday), we thought it wise to seek advice about the potential difficulties involved in going forward with our debate event on 30th November, the day of the proposed strike.

Unfortunately that advice has led us to the very disappointing conclusion that it would probably be best for all concerned if we were to cancel the event for next Wednesday and seek to re-schedule it for some time early in the new year. This is now our intention.

We hope you will do everything you can to let others know that the event East Belfast Speaks Out will now not take place as originally planned, since we really don’t want people to show up and be disappointed on the night. Needless to say, as organisers we greatly regret the need for postponement.

We will be in touch again with details of the re-scheduled debate just as soon as we have had the chance to assure ourselves of the availability of all the panellists.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

When is the price not the price? B&Q's misleading 5 for 4 pricing poster

Five for four poster in B&Q

Sprucefield B&Q are running a "buy four get one free offer" for loft panelling. Given the poster above, having lugged five packs onto a trolley and over to the checkout, would you be surprised if the bill came to over £20?

Turns out that the pricing poster is displaying the average price for five packs when you pay for four at the full price of £5.80, an is not stating the unit price you pay for 'each'. In smaller than small print in the bottom right corner of the poster (see below) it explains "£5.80 when sold individually" ... not that there's any option to buy them any other way than individually.

A misleading price? Or just a very badly formatted poster that "was sent by head office"? Maybe Trading Standards should decide ...

Friday, November 04, 2011


As a child, I used to look out the window on the evening of 5 November to see the fireworks display that was set off from the nearby army base. In recent years, I remember flying back home from England and being able to watch fireworks displays from above, little pin pricks of explosions, mushrooming over the English conurbations.

Last night, along with many local people, I got to see the army's display - held in conjunction with Lisburn City Council, and with its mayor Councillor Brian Heading (SDLP) in attendance.

Update - Oban's community fireworks display suffered a technical hitch, setting off the entire display in the first 60 seconds ...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Citizen Journalism

Languages, Photography, Film Noir, Inheritance Tax, Philosophy, Jewellery Design, Massage ... and Citizen Journalism. These are all courses offered by Queen's University's Open Learning Programme.

QUB Open Learning Citizen Journalism class

I met some of the students on the ten week Citizen Journalism course on Wednesday evening. They're half way through their programme, and have been looking at the development and value of citizen journalism, old media versus new media, blogging. Having talked to a real live blogger (cough), they'll now go on look at newsworthiness, ethics, legality as well as building their own blog and posting to it on their chosen subjects.

Talking to tutor Patrick Toland about QUB Citizen Journalism Open Learning course (mp3)

Patrick Toland is the course tutor, and I spoke to him after Wesnesday's session was over. He's pleased with the way the course is going, and hopes it will be run again.

It's a well constructed course and surprisingly thoughtful as well as practical. Perhaps in a year's time some of the students will still be blogging and feeding their passions and interests back into society. I'm looking forward to tracking down what they write about.

You can browse through the current prospectus or keep an eye on the Open Learning website if you fancy signing up for a course or two.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

East Belfast Speaks Out - back on Wednesday 30 November 2011

Update - Click through to read coverage of the actual event.

Update - postponed until early 2012 due to industrial action on 30 September.

East Belfast Speaks Out 2011

If you live in East Belfast, then here's a date for your diary. East Belfast Speaks Out is back for its third year on Wednesday 30 November. Local residents' chance to pose their questions to a panel of local representatives.

The general theme of the evening is

“How responsive is the Assembly to the real concerns of the electorate?”

The organisers are planning to vary the format from this year onwards. While continuing to welcome questions on all subjects of concern to the people of East Belfast, an Executive Minister will be invited to join the local panel to allow some topics to be addressed in detail by the politician responsible.

Minister of Education and Minister exercising the functions of the deputy First Minister John O'Dowd MLA (Sinn Féin) will be joined by Judith Cochrane MLA (Alliance), Sammy Douglas MLA (DUP), Jackie Gallagher (UPRG) and Jim Wilson (Loyalist Community Worker) John Kyle (PUP councillor). Mark Devenport will be back again to chair the evening.

Last year, organisers pulled together a panel that included the First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as well as the Secretary of State Owen Paterson Minister of State Hugo Swire as well as Dawn Purvis and journalist Liam Clarke. Topics covered included the size of local political institutions, Historical Enquiries Team, CSI, the future of NI, corporation tax and the Azores ruling, why Owen Paterson was missing for the second year in a row, university fees, capital cuts and public sector job cuts.

I wonder will having Jim Wilson on the panel this year rather than in the audience actually prevent him from asking the same question he's popped in the last two years, “Do the panel think the Historical Enquiries Team is the best way to move our society forward?”

Ashfield Boys School on the Holywood Road will once again be the venue. Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Talking to Gerry in the Occupy Belfast camp set up in Writer's Square

I spoke to Gerry Carroll at lunchtime today, sheltering under a pagoda set up beside the impromptu Occupy Belfast camp in Writer's Square opposite St Anne's Cathedral.

Gerry from the @OpOccupyBelfast camp in Writer"s Square /cc @OccupyBelfast (mp3)

About ten tents are pitched in the square. The protesters have a nightly meeting at 6pm to decide on the next course of action, and have no plans to pack up their camp.

More info on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Social Economy, in Belfast and Dublin

Contemporary Christianity hosted a fascinating conversation on the theme of the Social Economy back at the end of September.

Maurice Kinkead has spent the last 25 or so years developing and managing not-for-profit organisations, initially in faith based organisations and more recently with an inter-sectoral partnership. He is Chief Executive of East Belfast Partnership and has responsibility for two subsidiary companies, both leading social enterprises in Belfast.

During his talk titled The Social Economy: voluntary sector operating with private sector values? he spoke about his experience as a practitioner, learning at least as much from mistakes as from success, the positive aspects of initiatives like ‘Making Belfast Work’ that were subsequently lost in red tape, “people have values and ethics, not sectors”, described the social economy sector as “businesses that happen to be owned by charitable organisations, are (hopefully) profitable but non-profit distributing, and often employ and train people”.

Describing some of the issues that face the social economy sector, he suggested that “sometimes private sector values are good values” and went on to explain that the gap between who is paying and who is receiving a service sometimes leads to a drop in service quality in the social economy sector. He also advised that if a business wouldn’t be prepared to take its clients to court, then it shouldn’t be in a client-focussed industry – after all “running a social economy or charitable organisation doesn’t make you soft in the heart or soft in the head”. He suggested that bonus schemes could still be applicable in the social economy sector to improve motivation.

Last week, Contemporary Christianity had a follow-up event that again looked at the Social Economy, this times through the eyes and faith of Dublin-based Sean Mullan. He’s the initiator of Third Space, a new social business initiative to create social hubs in the redeveloping parts of Dublin city. In November Third Space will be opening its first meeting and eating place in the Smithfield area of Dublin City Centre. Might be worth a listen too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Digital Switchover - analogue TV signals stop on 24 October 2012 across the island of Ireland

At primary school in P4 or P5 (I think) we used to listen to a short current affairs educational radio programme each week. Homework that night was often to write a summary of the main story.

One week, it was all about cable television – a new concept, and I remember writing up pages and pages about the number of channels that could be offered through the coaxial cables that would be wired into everyone’s home.

It was at least another ten years before CableTel started to dig up the streets of Belfast. Early cable TV systems were analogue, but they paved the way for today’s bewildering choice of television transmission technologies that now includes cable, satellite, digital terrestrial, and IPTV.

By early 2011, 90% of homes in Northern Ireland homes had a television or set top box capable of receiving digital TV. (Source: Ofcom’s Communications Market Report Northern Ireland, 2011.)

On Friday morning, a robot called Digit Al user the ever-so-wonky Albert Clock to unveil the date on which analogue television signals in Ireland will cease to be transmitted.

Denis Wolinski and Digit Al unveil digital switchover date

In just over a year – on 24 October 2012 to be precise – 0% of Northern Ireland homes will be able to pick up an old analogue television signal. Two weeks beforehand, analogue BBC Two will be switched off as a final reminder to anyone who missed the publicity.

In fact, 0% of homes in Ireland will be able to pick up an analogue signal as plans for Digital Switchover have been synchronised across the island.

While Northern Ireland’s three main transmitters already broadcast Freeview at low power, switching off analogue allows the digital signal to be boosted and extended to the 40 or so relay transmitters. That’ll boost Freeview availability from 66% of households up to 98.5%.

As part of NI’s switchover, a mini-mux (a small group of channels) will broadcast RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 right across Northern Ireland meaning that the days of stealing overspill signal from the Irish transmitters near the border - or relying on the low power Divis transmitter that broadcasts the Irish language channel TG4 to parts of Belfast - are gone. However, some content (eg, sport) may be subject to rights issues and be removed from the northern version of these channels. People living close to the border will of course still be able to tune in the overspill of the southern transmitters as long as they have the right spec of set top box. Local media has so far made little mention of the availability of RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 right across the north.

Denis Wolinski (he’s the one on the left) is Digital UK’s man in NI. At Friday’s announcement about the date he explained:

This announcement paves the way for the end of analogue TV and the dawn of a fully digital age in which everyone can enjoy more channels, more choice and better pictures. Digital UK will ensure people know what to do, and that advice and practical support are available to those who need it.

That last sentence is important. Paid for out of the BBC licence fee, the Switchover Help Scheme offers practical help to people who are aged 75 and over, eligible for certain disability benefits, registered blind or partially sighted or living in care homes.

For £40, they will be given equipment to switch one TV per household to digital. They will be able to have that equipment installed if they want it, a demonstration of how it works and a number to call while they get used to things. If they’re eligible and also on income-related benefits, the help will be free. Everyone eligible will be contacted directly before switchover. More information is available on 0800 40 85 900 and online at

With slightly different digital transmission standards in use in the north and south of the island, together with the introduction of Freeview HD (and Youview), clear and practical information will need to be made available for everyone so that the right choices are made.

Northern Ireland will be the very last region of the UK to switch over. The October date means that audiences relying on Freeview won’t be able to watch Euro 2012 and the London Olympics in high definition as Freeview HD won’t be available until switchover in October. However, coverage in HD should be available on cable, Sky, Freesat, etc.

This public service announcement has been brought to you by the numbers 0 and 1!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Things to see at the Belfast Festival at Queen's

Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's logo 2011

Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life is new play by Paul Kennedy, set “one generation after a global apocalypse” (ie, bigger than the current economic crisis).

Only a few survivors remain, scouring the desolate landscape looking for food and clean water. Making contact with other humans is the biggest danger and the only hope. As desperation and paranoia grow, every move becomes a decision to trust or die.

The play takes place across the expanse of Old Victor Stationery Warehouse on Marshalls Road, off Castlereagh Road in Belfast, and the audience will move around the site to follow the action. Saturday 15 – Saturday 29 October (excluding Sundays). Tickets £12.

Back in the early 1990s, I remember seeing a production of West Side Story in the Gasworks site on Belfast’s Ormeau Road. The cast performed the beautiful songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim from a sparse multi-level set constructed from scaffolding. West Side Story is going to be staged in another unusual venue during this year’s Belfast Festival. Running from Wednesday 26 to Sunday 29 October, Music Theatre 4 Youth will be taking over May Street Presbyterian Church with a set built by the team from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Tickets £15.

Botanic Gardens will be inhabited by animals, goblins, fairies and pixies after 7pm on Wednesday 26 to Saturday 29 October. Enter through the main Stranmillis Road gate, and discover The Enchanted Garden. Tickets £3.

Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares

Hear the distinctive sound of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares in the Ulster Hall on Wednesday 19 October. Formerly known as the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir the group has a unique sound and a distinctive uniform. Tickets £20.

Using audience suggestions to create a new show every night, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical will put itself into the hands of the ticket holders seated in the Waterfront Studio. In their own words:

… a bunch of improvisers who have learned how to make up a fully-realised musical on the spot based on audience suggestions. It includes incredible, moving story-lines, amazing songs, full group harmonies, dance numbers. It’s also very funny to watch.

We’ve been working on this show since 2008, working out how to improvise in increasingly esoteric styles – musical, dance, straight theatre, film genres – whatever helps us make the show more interesting.

Tuesday 25 – Thursday 27 October. Tickets £15.

More musical mayhem and merriment from The Nualas in the Lyric Theatre at 8pm on Sunday 23 October with comic songs and Oirish banter. Tickets £16.50.

Over three evenings, a “small swarm of loudspeakers” spread across the Ulster Museum atrium will plan “an hour of improvised instrumental music” from the archive of composer Joel Cathcart. Cicadas features the sound of guitars, gongs, a harp, an organ and a vibraphone.

The catch? Given the positioning of the speakers around the atrium, you can’t hear the full piece from one position.

Instead, each listener will navigate the architecture of the performance space to discover new sounds and constellations of sounds, shaping their own experience of the piece from within its interior.

Monday 17 – Wednesday 19 October at 7pm. Free.

Do you think there should be statutory regulation of the news media? That’s the title of the Europa Hotel’s 40th Birthday Debate. Chaired by Noel Thompson and introduced by Sir Billy Hastings, four speakers will address the topic before the audience votes: Suzanne Breen (journalist), Chris Bryant (Labour MP), Bob Satchwell (Society of Editors director) and Paul Tweed (Belfast-based international libel & defamation lawyer). Penthouse Suite, Europa Hotel. Tuesday 25 October at 7.30pm. Tickets £7.50.

At primary school when the UK Navy task force sailed to the South Atlantic – a conflict that played out on the radio with heavy military censorship and no moving pictures – I read The Battle for the Falklands by reporters Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins with interest. Max Hastings went on to edit the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard as well as picking up a knighthood. Tickets are still available for An Audience with Sir Max Hastings in the Ulster Hall at 3.30pm on Sunday 23 October. Tickets £10.

Amongst the wealth of talks, there’s An Audience with James Naughtie – long time presenter of Radio 4 Today programme – at 7.30pm on Friday 21 October in the Elmwood Hall. Tickets £10.

Malachi O'Doherty, Gerry Anderson and Carlo Gebler discuss men, manhood, sex and the dishes on Monday 17 October at 8pm in the Elmwood Hall. I dread to think where that particular discussion will go. Tickets £8.

Tim McGarry's Political Party

After years of driving mad Noel Thompson in the back of his taxi, Tim McGarry is delivering his take on Northern Ireland politics to audiences over two nights in the Waterfront Studio. Friday 21 and Saturday 22 October. Tickets £15.

Catalyst Arts’ current exhibition is looking at Digital Arts in the Gallery: New Media Showcase. The showcase of “work by artists who use a range of new media in strategically different ways”. You can see for yourself how new media technologies intersect with visual art at College Court between 11am and 5pm between Thursday 6 to Thursday 27 October (closed Sunday and Monday). Free.

As part of the Peripheries architectural conference at QUB at the end of October, the QFT is showing the film Build Something Modern at 4pm on Saturday 29 October.

[A] moving documentary that tells the little known story of ground- breaking and idealistic young Irish architects, including Seán Rothery, Richard Hurley and Gerald Fay, who travelled to Africa from the 1950s to the 1970s in search of both challenge and creative freedom. As champions of modernism, the young architects, aided by the efforts of colleagues from home, produced a large canon of remarkable architecture including churches, hospitals and schools deep in the heart of Africa.

Tickets £6.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Boat Factory, back as part of this year's Belfast Festival

Dan Gordon and Michael Condron, actors in The Boat Factory

A year on from its première in East Belfast last October, it’s great to hear that Dan Gordon’s play The Boat Factory is returning to the city in a ten day run during the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

The magnificent Barnett Room in the Belfast Harbour Office is the setting for part play, part documentary, plotting out the development of the shipyard in Belfast, as well as charting the social history of the shipyard workers.

The play is a two hander, with Dan Gordon playing Davy (based on Dan’s father) and Michael Condron cast in the role of Geordie. While the play touches on the Titanic, it avoids taking the sentimental approach. I talked to Dan Gordon after the première.

Directed by Philip Crawford (Happenstance Theatre Company), the play is going on a short tour in November, with performances in Armagh’s Market Place Theatre (Wednesday 2), Enniskillen’s Portora Royal School (Thursday 3) and Glastry College, Newtownards (Friday 4).

Thursday 20- Saturday 29 October, matinees at weekends. Tickets £12.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Alternative Wedding Fair this weekend in Belfast - Ben Elton not expected to attend!

Wedding fairs are pretty common across Northern Ireland. This weekend, Cate and Saima from Quirky Weddings are teaming up with suppliers from across Northern Ireland in a bid to offer something distinctive to couples with upcoming nuptials.

The Crescent Arts Centre on Belfast’s University Road will be hosting the Alternative Wedding Fair on Sunday 9 October between 1pm and 5pm.

Instead of outfits, hair, photographers, flowers and catering, the fair will be offering outfits, hair, photographers, flowers and catering. But more unusual, and apparently with more of your personality injecting into the celebration. I asked Cate more about the event.

What kind of exhibitors are visitors going to meet if they come to your Alternative Wedding Fair?

We searched to find exhibitors who were a little bit different or who could tailor make something special. Sometimes if couples are working to a theme they find it hard to get exactly what they're looking for.

One of our most exciting exhibitors is a guy called Ciaran Larkin, whose company is called iMakeAnything. He makes anything. For example he makes levitating candles like in the Harry Potter movie. They can 'float' above your dancefloor and are quite the talking point!

We also have Brookhall, which is a farm venue outside Lisburn offering a refreshing alternative to the traditional hotel wedding. Anyone looking for a fun alternative to a wedding video can check out Marryokes! They make a music video at your wedding starring you and your guests.

This is just the start as we will have approximately 45 exhibitors, all of whom are open to unusual ideas!

Northern Ireland’s often a very conservative place. Have you witnessed much of a market for novel ways of adapting the traditional wedding with alternative ideas?

Absolutely. Feedback indicates that NI has been crying out for something different for a long time. We feel that traditional weddings aren't actually traditional at all. If you look at wedding photos from your grandparents generation it was nothing like today's weddings. We're on a mission to give people the confidence they need to break away from what wedding magazines are telling them they 'have' to have. We want them to allocate their budgets to items or services that have meaning to them and not feel obliged to have a lot of things they don't really need or want. No more wedding peer pressure!

Have you some favourite alternative weddings?

Yes if you look at our site we have photos of one of our exhibitor’s weddings ... Debbie from Dazzle Me With Your Tips. She married Jamie in the City Hall and then had a shin dig in Printer's Cafe. They each got a tattoo to mark the occasion and unveiled them to the other on the day. Their wedding cake had little zombies on it. The reason I love this is because they cast aside everything they had been told about weddings and organised a fun day out featuring things they liked and had meaning to them as a couple. It looked like a really great day! We LOVE to hear about other weddings and would love to hear from more couples so we can feature them on the site and inspire other couples!

You talk on the website about hating the stress and pressure that accompanies weddings. But with all these ideas and potential for personalisation, aren’t you adding to the stress by offering even more options and even more chance to aim for that ‘perfect’ wedding?

No not at all. The 'perfect' wedding is different for everyone. For some people their day will only be perfect if they've spent £1000 on chair covers. For some people it will only be perfect if they have Pac Man cufflinks! We want them to sit and think clearly about what they really. really must have on the day...using their own brains, not influenced by the magazines or people trying to stick the arm in. We want to encourage people to forget everything they already know about weddings and plan a party that celebrates the fact that they are committing their life to another person.

Tickets can bought in advance from the Crescent Arts Box Office for £3; tickets bought on the day at the door will be £5. Free entry for under 15s.

The photo above features Jeannie Johnston from J-Bird Bakery on Bloomfield Avenue who knows a thing or two about cupcakes!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Ikon at Belfast Culture Night

The ever-thoughtful and thought-provoking folks at Ikon took part in the recent Belfast Culture Night in the Cathedral Quarter. Ikon’s known for asking more questions than it gives answers, so their approach that even should be no surprise.

I give you The Evangelism Project where the group asked: What is love? And What must we do to be saved?

Political catch-up

In case they’re of more general interest, I’ve added links below to a few posts I’ve published recently on Slugger O’Toole.

Gusty Spence (1933-2011) tribute

The Great Big Politics Quiz where Haiti was the real winner with just over £1000 pounds was raised to support the rebuilding of homes through Haven Partnership. Over a hundred political anoraks (and friends) gathered in Belfast’s Black Box to tough their way through seven rounds of questions which ended in a tie – a coalition – with two teams on 80 points – representing Youth (UUP) Unionists and last year’s SDLP winners – well ahead of the rest of the room! (Pictures and some audio in the original post.)

Question master Jim Allister? And should David McClarty be more like him? The TUV’s sole MLA Jim Allister has been getting a reputation for running a one-man opposition/scrutiny function up at Stormont. He’s tabled a mere 24 questions for the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure to answer since May 2011. In fact, individually he has asked more questions than the whole of the Alliance Party, and if you consider the number of questions per MLA that parties ask, he’s an order of magnitude ahead of the rest.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Durga Puja in Belfast

Poster advertising Durga Puja celebrations in Belfast 2011

Durga Puja is the biggest festival of the year for Bengali Hindus. The dates are set according to the traditional Hindu calendar. Whereas Bengali workers will be off next week from Tuesday to Thursday to celebrate, in the West the celebrations move to the weekend.

The Belfast Bengali Cultural Association are organising this year’s festivities over this weekend in the Olympia Community Centre (Boucher Road, BT12 6NA, beside Olympia Leisure Centre). I’m sure they’d welcome you if you poke your head around the door to find out more.

You can see more about last year’s festivities in the video below.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Newspaper cheese, from a habit into a hobby

News Letter editor Darwin Templeton was in conversation with William Crawley on Friday at lunchtime, standing in for Malachi O’Doherty. Appointed as the BBC’s Louis MacNeice Writer in Residence at Queen’s University Belfast, Malachi has been holding a series of public discussions with (mostly) local senior media representatives.

I’m sure Malachi will put the full audio from the event on his blog over the next week or so.

Darwin described his years working in as a correspondent for The Sun in Northern Ireland, a spell that included coverage of the Omagh bombing, as well as several spells at the Belfast Telegraph.

He described the News Letter readership as “conservative” and explained how he tells staff to imagine they are writing for “their Granny in Cullybackey”. He fondly joked that he could “just predict the backlash if I started mucking about with Farming Life” – the News Letter’s very successful Saturday supplement.

Darwin Templeton was acting editor of UTV insight when he was appointed as editor of the News Letter in the summer of 2006. And it is back to UTV that Darwin will be heading this autumn, returning as UTV’s News Editor.

I note that twenty five years ago, 24 hour news TV channels didn’t exist in the UK or Ireland. News websites didn’t exist. CEEFAX was about the only popular news service that could trump the next edition of a newspaper.

Newspaper readers increasingly scan through their chosen paper(s), occasionally stopping to read ever-shorter articles that précis events but avoid going into great detail. Yes, you too! As readership levels fall, so too does the revenue brought in by newspaper advertising, which leads to staff cuts, and papers bulking up their contents with wire feeds.

Asked about his prediction for the newspaper industry, Darwin Templeton acknowledged that his forecast was vague:

“There will be fewer newspapers in ten years time, and they’ll come out less frequently.”

It would be increasingly hard work, six days a week “telling readers something they already know”.

Roy Greenslade blogged about this very topic on Saturday, quoting from an article well worth reading in full by Ian Jack in Saturday’s Guardian.

Printed newspapers are shedding readers much faster than Greenland is losing ice, even if you take the Times Atlas's controversial (now withdrawn) estimate of Arctic shrinkage … This is a crisis. Newspapers need revenue, and their income still comes overwhelmingly from their printed rather than digital editions; a ratio of 80/20 in the Guardian's case …

A newspaper can cut its costs, as the Guardian has done, and/or it can put its cover price up, as the Guardian did this week; and/or it can build a paywall around its digital content, as the Guardian has resisted. But price rises are only slightly more swings than roundabouts – you gain more per copy but tend to sell fewer papers – and the commercial benefit of paywalls has still to be demonstrated.

Ian Jack suggested that the cost of the pooled newspaper supply chain that distributes papers from printing presses to newsagents would rise fatally if one big publisher – eg, News International – withdrew.

In newspaper offices, dark talk is common: by 2015 printed versions of the dailies might appear only once or twice a week, with a circulation restricted to London and perhaps a few other big cities.

He cites New York Times media columnist David Carr who recently predicted that his own paper in five years’ time would still be available in print, but only as “luxury product gorgeous to behold” and not in news-stands.

The eventual destination of the printed newspaper, then, looks likely to be the equivalent of the artisanal cheese.

He notes prior art when “from 1917 to 1969 the Times printed a special edition on heavier paper for the royal household”.

Nobody will pick them from the doormat wondering how the world has changed from the day before. They will be badges, evidence of their readers' cultural or political tastes, with an artisanal-cheese kind of price that turns them from a habit into a hobby.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Culture Night ... tonight in Belfast, Strabane, Derry and beyond

Across Ireland, tonight's the night when arts taster events will be run in a town near you ... for free. Last September, Belfast's Cathedral Quarter was buzzing late into the evening as families walked around the streets, guided by maps and diverted by what their ears and eyes could pick out of the smorgasbord of music, pictures, talks, dance, comedy, street performers and one man soulfully playing trumpet from an upstairs window.

Tonight, the organiser has crammed in even more events, and even more activities for children. Check out the Culture Night Belfast website. Culture Night is also being celebrated in Derry and Strabane, as well as many other towns and cities across Ireland.