Northern Ireland

NI's civic festival that was overshadowed by turmoil

Fun fair at Ulster 71 festival
Image caption A fun fair was one of the attractions at the event

Ulster 71 was a festival that aimed to promote Northern Ireland on the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland.

Planning for the event had begun in 1968, and was the brainchild of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill.

He had already conceded that there would be difficulties in uniting the population of NI behind the festival.

Ulster 71 was to be the high point of Mr O'Neill's pet project of civic pride weeks that had been held throughout NI during the previous four years.

After Mr O'Neill's resignation in 1969, plans for Ulster 71 continued.

As the number of street disturbances, bombings and deaths increased during 1971, the idea of a festival espousing Northern Ireland's achievements divided public opinion.

The specially-commissioned films that were shown at the main exhibition hall, now the Queen's University Physical Education Centre (PEC), show the government promising funding for new jobs, schools, the expansion of Aldergrove Airport and the continued development of the new city of Craigavon.

Peter Daniell, who headed the design team, believes that the main purpose of Ulster 71 was to sell Northern Ireland to its own population.

The government believed that there would be an influx of tourists and placed advertisements in newspapers, asking for people to open their homes to visitors from Britain and overseas.

Although there were fears that the main exhibition site in Botanic Gardens would not be ready in time, Ulster 71 opened its gates on 14 May 1971.

The main exhibition site was a brightly-coloured village of tents and domes, containing bars, amusements and a funfair, set on the embankment where Botanic Gardens stretches down to the River Lagan.

Image caption Broadcaster Don Anderson at the entrance to the 'Tunnel of Hate'

Before construction began, the last of the post-war prefabricated bungalows that had been on the site were removed and their residents resettled.

The exhibits and displays in the main exhibition centre were intended to educate and inform visitors about the illustrious and industrious Northern Irish men and women who had gone before them and even gone as far as becoming US presidents.

Forty years on, the feature that became known as the "Tunnel of Hate", still has the power to unsettle and disturb, strategically positioned after the visitor has wandered through a rustic, Ulster countryside setting.

Apart from a few hoax bomb threats and a student protest on the opening day, Ulster 71 largely escaped unscathed from the mounting civil unrest that was engulfing NI.

The introduction of internment on 9 August could have proved a fatal blow.


The lowest daily attendance, ten thousand visitors through the gates, was recorded on 13 August, but the festivities carried on until September.

Ulster 71 has now largely been forgotten.

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.

Security for a royal visit during the festivities could not be guaranteed and no members of the Royal family attended.

Image caption A large choir of school children performed at the opening ceremony

Giles Velarde, one of the principal designers, counters the pessimistic view of the overall success of the festival by pointing out that over half a million visitors came to experience Ulster 71.

This was a third of the population of Northern Ireland, a footfall figure that would exceed the expectations and delight the organisers of a similar festival anywhere in the world if held today.

There is very little physical evidence that Ulster 71 ever took place.

Take a walk around the car park at the PEC and you're standing where medieval knights once jousted and a massed choir serenaded crowds gathered for the opening ceremony.

As happened at the end of the Festival of Britain in 1951, contractors arrived on site at the conclusion and stripped all that was salvageable and could be recycled for future expositions.

All that remains are the memories of the third of the population that came through the gates and the visual record of the films and photographs that survive.

Two special BBC programmes are available to view online.

Bernard Falk presents a magazine programme on Ulster 71.

A half hour programme on the opening day of the festival is also available to watch.

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