Next May, the United Kingdom will host the 67th Eurovision Song Contest. If three members of Belfast City Council get their way, it will be hosted in Belfast.
Seamas de Faoite (SDLP), Anthony Flynn (Green) and Micky Murray (Alliance) are spearheading a campaign to bring the Contest to Belfast, with a proposal to enter the bidding process being considered by the Council and support being offered by political representatives across the city. As well as an active twitter account, the campaign has secured the endorsement of five of Ireland’s six Eurovision-winning artists, as well as setting out how Belfast meets the strict criteria for a host city set out by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
Despite never entering in our own right, hosting the contest would be reflective of a deeper history of local involvement in Eurovision history.
Only eleven countries have won more than twice, but, of Northern Ireland’s participants, Derry’s Dana (1970) and Belfast’s Linda Martin (1992) both took home the trophy. We can take credit for one of the United Kingdom’s five victories, too, with the melody to Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String” (1968) being written by another Derryman in the form of Phil Coulter. Coulter wrote Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations” the following year, which placed second, something Martin also achieved in 1984 with the Johnny Logan-penned “Terminal 3”.
Last year’s Irish entrant was from north of the border too, with Brooke Scullion being born in Bellaghy and studying drama at Ulster University. She only finished 15th in the second semi-final in Turin, failing to qualify for the Grand Final, a disappointing result for a clever track that appeared to be slightly let down by its staging. Any local songwriters who believe they can do better can start writing now, with EBU rules allowing any song released after 1st September to be entered, and RTE having implemented an open submission form on their website to solicit entries for 2022.
The historical success of both Ireland and the United Kingdom could arguably be seen as a benefit of circumstance – in all but five contests between 1956 and 1999, they were two of only three countries allowed to sing in English. (You might be familiar the relaxation of this stipulation in the mid-1970s, in the form of ABBA not being forced to sing “Waterloo” in Swedish.)
Regardless, Dana’s triumph in 1970 was a slice of pure and perfect Eurovision cheese – almost sickly sweet and unashamedly earnest, her teenage smile and no-frills performance matched the song perfectly. Europe might not have appreciated it, but her background in the Bogside, in the circumstances of May 1970, added poignancy to her sentimentality. “All Kinds of Everything” was a hit all over Europe, and helped her carve out a long and slightly eccentric career, including singing the song for Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup campaign, performing as the opening act for Pope John Paul II in the New Orleans Superdome, serving one term as a Member of the European Parliament and making two failed tilts at the Irish Presidency on a socially conservative platform.
Dana’s victory also led to some familiar political issues surrounding Eurovision, with the BBC anxious as to how the British entry the following year would be received amidst escalating violence. A solution was found with the entry of Clodagh Rodgers, who was not only a well-known singer in the UK and Ireland, but was born in Warrenpoint. Nevertheless, she received death threats from the IRA while participating in the contest. Her song, “Jack in the Box” finished a polite and creditable fourth.
Northern Ireland’s next victory, by Linda Martin in 1992 – the first Contest following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, held on Europe Day – was, by contrast, a perfect execution of the formula which gave Ireland an unprecedented run of success in the 1990s. A powerful and wistful ballad, moving between major and minor keys, sung with emotion and simply staged. (1993’s winner Niamh Kavanagh had a little more help in executing this set of tricks, as her demo was recorded by a then-unknown Idina Menzel, later to be the voice of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, who suggested the key change in the final chorus).
Both Dana and Linda Martin have their place in Eurovision history, but Ireland’s winning run prompted its own issues, given the costs of hosting and staging the contest. In 1971, the programme had been only RTE’s second live outside broadcast, and the elevated production values two decades on, which included once choosing to stage it in an equestrian centre in Millstreet, County Cork, were serious.
The joke of Ireland trying to lose in order to avoid the hosting fees became so well-worn that it provided the plot to an episode of Father Ted – and the music to that was Northern Irish too, with County Fermanagh’s Neil Hannon writing and performing both “My Lovely Horse” and “The Miracle is Mine”, the two duelling entries at the fictional Irish national selection. (The former of which still gets requested by shouts from the audience at Divine Comedy gigs, despite him writing two other Eurovision parodies since.)
While an undoubted fodder for comedy, the budgetary issues for RTE were a major concern behind the scenes, with exploratory talks held with the BBC on a number of occasions to ascertain whether it would be possible to co-host. Where? In Belfast, of course.
The final point where this speculation was raised was ahead of 1997’s show, the fourth in five years held in Ireland. A fifth victory may have proved a bridge too far, and with the Waterfront Hall opening and ceasefires being declared, bringing it to Belfast may have been too good an opportunity to pass up. The next year’s date, 9th May 1998, falls almost exactly between the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the confirmatory referendums on both sides of the border. How would Eurovision have fitted in?
The organisers may have found a greater willingness to recruit some international stardust to proceedings, given the circumstances and considering U2’s famous appearance at a pro-Agreement campaign rally. Then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam would undoubtedly have been captivated by the idea – in May 1998 she assisted in arranging a concert by Elton John in the grounds of Stormont – and it would definitely have attracted political attention, given the stakes of the referendum campaign.
But would Northern Ireland have been ready for Eurovision? Security threats were still undoubtedly present, and the EBU may have turned down the risk as too great. Hosting it may have proved too radical and progressive for Belfast in other ways, with eventual winner Dana International, whose selection to represent Israel was opposed by Orthodox Jewish leaders in her homeland, being the first openly transgender singer to emerge victorious.
Ultimately the opportunity for a Belfast-hosted to contest never came to pass. Ireland’s entry came a distant second in 1997 to Katrina and the Waves’ impossibly catchy “Love Shine a Light”, representing the United Kingdom. (The show was the Saturday after the 1997 UK General Election, and the UK’s margin of victory led lead singer Katrina Leskanich to quip about “two landslides in a week”). The BBC’s production team did visit Belfast to scout it as a possible location for 1998, but ultimately Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena was chosen instead.
If all of that sounds like I might have spent slightly too long considering the possibility of Belfast hosting Eurovision in the late 1990s, then it’s because I definitely have. As part of an anthology of alternate history stories about Ireland published by the online publishing house Sea Lion Press, I have written “Irlande du Nord, Douze Points”, a short story surrounding what exactly what Belfast hosting in 1998 would have been like. Starring, among others, Michael D Higgins, Boris Johnson, Ian Paisley and Terry Wogan, it goes into slightly too much detail as to how it all might have unfolded.
1998 may have been a missed opportunity, but there would be an undoubted poignancy to Eurovision arising in Belfast next spring. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Belfast would be an apt mirror for Kyiv, whose rightful place as hosts has been taken away from them by the looming spectre of violence. More than most cities, Belfast would represent a hope for recovery from the depths of the current crisis, and the population would definitely be more than happy to welcome Europe, and Ukraine, if it was given the chance.
Though Glasgow, London and Manchester might be the favourites to host, let’s hope that the BBC look on us a little bit more generously this time around, and brings Eurovision back to our shores, a quarter of a century on.