The stroke politics of Belfast’s Dome of Delight…

belfast city council logoFirst of all, well done Belfast City Council. Last night’s web cast was engaging, and at times, courtesy of the cadet row, a fascinating insight into the power dynamic within which the chamber operates. There ought to be more of it, perhaps, as Alan has said, taking it round all councils to give the rest of us an insight as to what’s done in the name of local rate payers.

The first section I caught was a long castigation of the young Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile for refusing to hand a 15 year old girl cadet her Duke of Edinburgh Award earlier in the week. His deputy, Ruth Patterson pulled no punches, “You are a young man, and you have a lot to learn… Live it and learn it Lord Mayor”. Ouch!

To be fair, the Mayor took his punishment. As wave after wave of indignant Unionist lathered him with whatever the opposite of praise is. There were protesters outside and presumably inside the chamber to think about about. One exception was Cllr Bob Stoker from the Donegall Road, who recalled his time as a Cadet and how his best friend from Turf Lodge had had to leave because of tension in his area:

“No one expects you to stop being a Republican… The heart of the matter is the tensions between being a principled Republican versus being a Lord Mayor… You and any future SF Lord Mayors need to set aside your principles to do the job properly”

If the Mayor was shaken by the barrage, the only sign to us internet watchers was a short passage towards the end where for a moment the leader of the largest group in the house, Sinn Fein’s Cllr Jim McVeigh seemed to be feeding him with instructions about what he should do next to deal with the deluge of points of order coming in from the other side.

Most party colleagues seemed happy to give him his full official title, Lord Mayor. But Cllr O Donnghaile seemed determined to call himself Mayor, presumably because its unlikely he would be held in contempt of his own office). I suspect that’s one of several longer term themes being developed for reform as and when the council comes under Sinn Fein control.

The other was his use of Irish in the chamber. New old boy Cllr Mairtin O’Muilleoir is clearly working way below his own ‘pay grade’. When the matter of the Gaeltacht Quarter came he took some time to talk about the importance of that initiative tackling poverty and deprivation in the area, he said most of it in Irish, provoking an irate Ulster Unionist councillor Davy Brown in to saying he was speaking gobbledygook (which for most of the chamber, and the official clerks, he most certainly was).

As for the rest there was mostly obstructionism, almost for the sake of it. Why on earth the council cannot hang up a Christmas lights in Irish, beats me. In light of Peter Robinson’s appeal for Catholics to join the party, his own councillors are sending out precisely the opposite message of the one he wants.

And then there was the Sinn Fein amendment to a motion seeking permission to hold a Unionist event in Ormeau Park next May. Cllr Deirdre Hargy’s amendment suggested the council a delay in hiring out the park for a 1912 commemoration committee until they had clarified what routes they would be taking for any feeder parades into the park.

In law, the organisers only have to give 28 days notice; the SF group wanted nearly five months. The amendment fell, but they did manage to block permission for a 1912 flowerbed instead.

Then the amendment which got Mairtin on the news again this morning. A late amendment which proposed working with the Culturlann in order that a Nollaig Shona sign be made, pro bono, and offered to the Council and erected in the grounds of City Hall. A nice Dome of Delight stroke, and it was Sinn Fein who left the chamber in the higher spirits at the end of what undoubtedly had started as a tough session for the young Mayor from Short Strand.

If you haven’t already you should get yourself a copy of Mairtin O’Muilleoir’s excellent account (Belfast’s Dome of Delight) of his earlier career, in that august institution before he went off to take control of what is now the Belfast Media Group…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty