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East Belfast

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Mention the term East Belfast and immediately it conjures up images of Harland and Wollf cranes, crowded terrace streets, Stormont and the Oval football ground- to name but a few.

East Belfast became part of the city following an extension of the municipal boundary to include the old town land of Ballymacarrett on the County Down bank of the River Lagan in 1853.

Today, East Belfast is best identified by the enormous, yellow, shipyard gantries, Samson and Goliath, which dominate the skyline.  These have become icons of past glory but, despite industrial decline, the area is now a vital part of regeneration of Belfast.

The area, with a population of around 80,000 residents, was once renowned as the industrial hub of Northern Ireland with its reputation for world class industry including the 'tin bashing industries' of ship building, heavy engineering, aircraft manufacturing, glassworks, linen production and rope making.

Sadly, over the years the worldwide decline in ship building and heavy engineering have had a devastating impact on a proud and hard working East Belfast people.  Additionally, over thirty five years of a vicious, terrorist campaign left its mark and eroded confidence with potential inward investors.

Yet we have many reasons to be cheerful.  There are encouraging developments and exciting plans for the future.  You only have to look around East Belfast where social, economic and physical regeneration is very evident.

The private sector, in partnership with the Port of Belfast is at the forefront of the Titanic Quarter development.  This £5bn scheme, which is the largest waterfront development in Europe, is expected to create at least 25,000 new jobs over the next 20 years.  Thousands of jobs will also be created by the Carvill group at the Sirocco Quays waterfront development.

We also have the key gateway sites of Belfast Harbour, the George Best Belfast City Airport and Shorts Bombardier- all employing thousands of people, many from the East Belfast area.

Further east we have the seat of parliament, home to the Northern Ireland Assembly which meets in the fine Parliament Buildings at Stormont.  The Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings, commonly called Stormont are situated on an elevated site in the suburbs of East Belfast.  Designed by Sir Arthur Thornley, this neo-classical building is set on a plinth of Mourne granite and is finished in Portland Stone.  The then Prince of Wales officially opened it in November 1932.  The magnificent buildings can be seen for many miles around and is one of Northern Ireland's main tourist attractions.

Additionally, the exciting development of the Titanic Signature Project will become a premium 'must see' visitor destination for the people of Belfast and visitors to Northern Ireland.  With an investment of £97 million the Titanic Signature Building will be a world-class visitor attraction.  Located in the heart of Titanic Quarter, this iconic building will be opened by 2012.  It will showcase the story of the Titanic and the wider theme of shipbuilding and seafaring in Belfast, including the egineering, industrial, social, cultural and economic origins and connections.

The Titanic Signature Project will undoubtedly help unlock East Belfast's untapped tourism potential.  Already visitors flock to the area for bus tours and walking tours to learn more about the area's famous sons such as the world acclaimed writer and Christian Apologist, C.S. Lewis.  Charles Staples, or 'Jack', Lewis as he was affectionately known, was born in Ballyhackamore, in 1898 and spent his formative years in the city.  Living on the Circular Road he attended nearby Campbell College.  He wrote the six-book Chronicles of Narnia, which have gone on to sell some 65 million copies worldwide resulting in the blockbuster film, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Van Morrison, another son to hail from the East of the city is still a living legend.  His live performances at their best are regarded as transcendental and inspired, while some of his recordings, such as studio albums Astral Weeks and Moondance, and the live album It's Too Late to Stop Now, are widely viewed as amng the greatest ever made.

And let's not forget our own George Best, the greatest footballer of all time according to Pele, the world renowned soccer legend.  Born in the Cregagh estate, he won the European Cup with Manchester United, and was named the European Footballer of the Year in 1968.

East Belfast is an attractive place to live with tree lined residential areas, excellent shopping facilities and beautiful parks, none more so than Victoria Park.  Opened in 1906, one of the park's biggest attractions is its lake, which was originally used for boating.

Today it is home to a range of water birds such as swans, geese, ducks, herons and migrant waders.  Some of the waders have been recorded in the Blatic Sea and Scandinavia.  There are also many pleasent walks around the park, with tree planting providing shelter for many small birds.  A poetry trail, which features ten nature-themed poems written by local primary school pupils and etched onto metal plaques, also provides a pleasent route around the park.

Within East Belfast lies Craigavon House, which has great historic significance to many Unionists.  There the Ulster Unionist Party met for the first tiime, the Solemn League and Covenant was first signed, and which became in due course the UVF Hospital following the First World War.

Yet life is not so sweet for all.  There is recognition among government departments and funding agencies alike, that 'poverty amongst plenty' still exists in a number of working class neighbourhoods; areas where educational attainment is low, health is poor, long term unemployment is still a major problem and physical derelction is all too obvious.

The energy for much of the regeneration and revitalisation in East Belfast has come from people working together in organisations such as East Belfast Partnership where I have served as a voluntary director of the board for over a decade.  This broad-based, social partnership includes local residents, statutory bodies, elected representatives and business people who are leading the way.

What better example of partnership working than the £40 million Connswater Community Greenway?  The scheme, which will create a linear park through East Belfast, will connect the communities of East Belfast and restore the Connswater River as well as the smaller Loop and Knock Rivers, helping to reach their potential as open spaces and living community assets.

I have no doubt that East Belfast is on the cusp of major regeneration and prosperity, but we must redouble our efforts to ensure that those, who in the past have been left behind also share in any future benefits.  This will mean that government and other service providers are fully aware of local needs.  It will mean all of us working together, in partnership, to meet those needs.

It will also mean that we continue to restore the pride and passion of East Belfast; to set our sights high and to continually be reinvigorated and re-envisioned.  As C.S. Lewis, one of East Belfast's famous son's reminds us, "You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream".

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