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Festival frolics to cheer us up

IS THAT IT? The fairground attractions at the Ulster ’71 exhibition were modest, to say the least IS THAT IT? The fairground attractions at the Ulster ’71 exhibition were modest, to say the least
By Squinter

THE announcement by Teesie May on the eve of the Tory conference that there’s to be a Festival of GB and OWC in 2022 has, not surprisingly, split the Pravince down the middle. On the one side are those who think that an orgy of union jack-waving to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory is an excellent idea; on the other side are those with a titter of wit.
Squinter can recall two similar Ulsterfests in his lifetime, both of them when he was a youngster. The most recent one was the queen’s 1977 silver jubilee, when Britain vos celebratink der 25th anniversary von der coronation von Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg und Gotha. Loyal Ulster being loyal Ulster, it ended up cheering loudest and, West Belfast being West Belfast, we decided to celebrate the auspicious occasion with a non-stop summer of rioting as a result of which Squinter’s right arm remains sore to this day.
The earlier one was the rather creepy and sinister ‘Ulster ’71’ – a celebration of 50 years of partition that was held on land between Botanic Park and the Stranmillis Embankment. The idea was hatched in December 1968 by Prime Minister Terence O’Neill: “In that year (1971) Northern Ireland will celebrate its 50th anniversary – 50 years of challenge and difficulty and occasional disappointment, but also 50 years of splendid achievement, of growing prosperity, of expanding opportunity.”
By the summer of 1971, though, when the gates opened to the public, Terry was out on his ear, having been done for by a combination of opposition by UUP hardliners to his limited programme of civil rights reforms and a series of UVF bomb attacks on Belfast’s water supply. He jacked it in in April 1969 and in an interview a month later he revealed the depth of his passion for reform: “It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church.”
Ulster ’71 cracked on regardless, although the loss of a man so imbued with the spirit of egalitarianism must have been a crushing blow. An expectant public surged through the gates when the exhibition opened in May for a five month (although maybe surged isn’t the right word given that the extant images of the event show that the people were never what you could call tightly packed).
Looking back at the photographic and filmic evidence that survives, it’s clear that the attractions on the site were, ah, modest, to say the least. Let’s see now… there was a big, multi-coloured plastic model of the Giant’s Causeway over the door of the main indoor space; there was, um, a model of a Shorts plane hanging overhead; there were fairground rides (think parish hall fundraiser, not Funderland); there was a disco with go-go girls; a £40m satellite was launched containing a message of peace from Ulster to any life forms who may happen across it. (Squinter has made up one of these five attractions so that you can have fun deciding which didn’t happen).
By far the most exciting thing to happen during Ulster ’71 was the introduction of internment, which wasn’t technically part of the show although doubtless it was wildly popular with a fair percentage of Ulster ’71 attendees and organisers.
The last bit of air went out of the balloon when it was finally decided that there would be no royal visit because the safety of the afore-mentioned Saxe-Coburg von Gothas could not be guaranteed.
As for posterity, the BBC – normally an enthusiastic booster of Our Wee Country – reported in an article in 2011: “The official government report did not describe it as a success and ultimately it is remembered as a bland effort in self-promotion for a state that was teetering on the brink of implosion.”
Which brings us back to Gammonfest – sorry, the Festival of GB and THP. What’s that going to look like on this side of the Irish Sea border in four years time? Well, flags, of course – there’ll be plenty of those. But then there always is, so Ulster’s going to have to do a bit of thinking outside the box here. Marches – ditto. Bonfires – ditto. What about a festival, then? One with a funfair and the Giant’s Causeway and.. and.. never mind, you get the idea. We could call it Ulster ’22. Or Catch 22. Which might make a bit more sense.

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