In July 2000, the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) signed a contract with Northwin Limited, to enable Northwin to provide a replacement college building on the old Millfield campus site.
The project would cost around £20m.
The Northwin Consortium is the leading educational Private Finance Initiative provider in Northern Ireland and comprises some of Northern Ireland's leading construction companies, including Farrans Limited, Braidwater Enterprises Limited and John Graham (Dromore) Limited.
After the old college buildings were demolished, all that stood on the site was a single section of wall, 9 x 6 meters, heavily wrapped in protective coverings. It eventually disappeared and work began on building the replacement college.
The new campus became operational in September 2002, with Graham Facilities Management providing the on-site catering, cleaning, porterage, security and the day nursery in addition to building and engineering maintenance over the next 25 years.
I often wondered what became of that last remaining section of wall at the old college site. Painted on it was a mural depicting Belfast’s industrial past, by celebrated local artist, John Luke (1906 – 1975). Luke began work on the mural in 1961 and worked on it intermittently for ten years, but never finished it.
Although known as a traditional easel-painter, Luke turned to mural painting in 1950 when he was commissioned to paint a mural in Belfast City Hall to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain. Another mural by Luke can be found in Rosemary Street Masonic Hall.
Under a Freedom of Information request, I contacted BIFHE to inquire after the mural and discovered that the Institute made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £44,500 funding to remove the mural from the old Millfield site and donate it to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. However, according to BIFHE, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum was unable to give any guarantees about when the mural might be placed on public display (a condition for funding imposed by the Heritage Lottery Fund) and the funding was withdrawn in February 2007.
Meanwhile, John Eastwood and Sons Ltd stepped into the picture and claimed the mural under a salvage clause in a demolition contract they had with Northwin. BIFHE initially defended Eastwood’s legal challenge. However, following protracted negotiations and legal advice the institute reluctantly conceded ownership.
The mural, once a public asset and part of Belfast's artistic heritage, is thought to be worth around £250,000 in the right location. I've no information on who was responsible for allowing the mural to fall into private hands, or if anyone at BIFHE was disciplined over the matter.
BIFHE is currently in discussions with Northwin on a project involving the replacement of existing accommodation at campuses in Brunswick Street and College Square East. The capital value is approximately £42 million.
Image: The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh 1945 by John Luke