The misunderstood Lord Mayor shuffle – timing, facts & Sinn Féin tying themselves in knots over friendship

May 2012 front page An PhoblachtOnce a month, the postie delivers a bulging A5 envelope. Stuffed inside is a twice-folded copy of An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s 32 page monthly newspaper.

The May edition’s back page is devoted to a story that broke in the Belfast Telegraph last Monday. Niall Ó Donnghaile is “leaving his post a few days early to allow a DUP Mayor to take up office in time for the Jubilee celebrations”.

The newspaper story explained that the new mayor would be “elected at a meeting on Friday June 1” ahead of the long weekend and “festivities marking the Queen’s 60 years on the throne”. Sinn Féin’s group leader on Belfast City Council Jim McVeigh was quoted extensively, and reported to say “we knew that the Jubilee celebrations were coming up and had a discussion with the DUP about that”.

Former UUP Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers called the move a snub: “It is definitely a snub … It is unfortunate in view of what the Deputy First Minister said last year – that he would meet the Queen”.

One fact remained missing from public view. Strangely, Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh didn’t seem to make clear to the Belfast Telegraph when the decision to transfer early was made. That one fact would have significantly changed the impact of the story and the feeling of disappointment felt by many watching the story unfold. It took several days for details about the timing to emerge

An Phoblacht explains that “the decision was agreed with the DUP 12 months ago, making nonsense of a Belfast Telegraph splash that it is a ‘snub’ to unionists”.

Jim McVeigh commented:

Contrary to this being a snub to anyone, rather we were trying to accommodate unionists. We were conscious that the Jubilee celebrations are a big deal for unionists and therefore we offered to accommodate them. Ironically, at the time of those discussions, Niall might not have been aware that Sinn Féin had chosen him to take up the role.

An Phoblacht adds:

Councillor McVeigh said this decision was taken because republicans recognise that events such as this are hugely symbolic for unionist and loyalist communities even though ‘we as republicans are obviously not keen to celebrate the Jubilee in any shape or form’.

The Belfast Telegraph weren’t the only people who hadn’t been told the whole story. The DUP deputy Lord Mayor Ruth Patterson couldn’t have been in full possession or recollection of the 2011 agreement when she told reporters:

I thought that the current Lord Mayor would have learned a severe lesson from when he refused to present an Army cadet with a certificate last December.

Niall Ó Donnghaile’s term as Lord Mayor started well with visits and engagements across Belfast. Sinn Féin’s bridge building and reconciliation strategy was in full flow … right up to the point that the republican Lord Mayor was informed that he was going to shake the hand of a young army cadet collecting her Duke of Edinburgh award.

Niall’s hesitation and bungled compromise devalued his currency and cast a shadow over the many cross-community engagements he has continued to attend and support.

In the end, even the pragmatic handover of the Lord Mayor’s chains from Sinn Féin to the DUP in time for the Jubilee – an arrangement that smacks both of reconciliation and avoiding embarrassment – has been tainted and misunderstood.

Worshipping in a Presbyterian church that is literally a stone’s throw from Short Strand [Niall’s house would be visible from the spire!] at the beginning of the year I’d have said it was unthinkable that Niall’s mayoral year could pass without him attending a service or event.

Pitt Park bonfire soon after it was litIn a year Niall Ó Donnghaile would have moved across the road: from last July when his election poster was burnt on of the Pitt Park bonfire to being welcomed into a local church.

Yet now, with Titanic concerts and Yardmen services over, it sadly seems unthinkable that there will be a convenient opportunity for him to attend this year … or maybe even next year. While there have been many small steps taken throughout the year, some of the opportunities along with the trust capital have evaporated.

The DUP – who seem likely to appoint another capable young councillor Gavin Robinson as Lord Mayor on 1 June – will need some nimble footwork and forethought if they are to out-engage and out-reconcile Sinn Fein and not fall into similar traps.

Gareth Russell blogged earlier this week on Confessions of a Ci-Devant:

In February, many of the Sinn Fein councillors had voted to approve the spending of £56,000 (about USD 90,000) towards local community organisations across Belfast who wanted to organise their own celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee.

Sinn Féin’s programme of reconciliation is proving complicated. On one hand Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is preparing the way to be able to meet the Queen, while at a local government level a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor is being denied (or avoiding) that opportunity even after agreeing to pay for community parties.

An Phoblacht also contained a centre page interview with Declan Kearney to reflect on his March An Phoblacht article and Easter Rising remarks that “uncomfortable conversations are key to reconciliation”. He flagged up Martin McGuinness’ speech to the Political Studies Association as “containing important messages” even though it “didn’t garner huge headlines”. [You can listen to the speech via an April post on Slugger.]

Near the end of the printed interview, Declan Kearney says:

Let’s open new possibilities for progress by learning to understand each other better and making new friendships.

Reaching out the hand of friendship isn’t always straightforward.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • “An Phoblacht explains that ‘the decision was agreed with the DUP 12 months ago ..'”

    Alan, has the DUP commented on such an agreement? Has it acknowledged that such an agreement on the timing of the transfer of robes exists?

  • I haven’t seen any comment from the DUP – though they’ve had two or three days to deny it, so the absence of comment currently points to acceptance of the narrative!

  • So if Gavin Robinson takes over, will Belfast then have a tradition that the Mayor has to be a councillor representing Pottinger?

  • derrydave

    God almighty – what a pointless thread. There really is no issue here.

  • andnowwhat


    At the very, very least, this thread straightens things out ie. that there was no snub. We know how this would have gone down in the annals of Belfast mythology, something best not added to, had the truth not been put out there.

    The Ruth Patterson thing is interesting. Was she playing along to keep it hush hush or kept out of the loop.

    I don’t think Jim “first citizen for life” Rodgers should be spouting off, the man who was happy to see the mural of his beloved Glens painted over with a tawdry UVF one. Seemingly, Jim thought that the 1912 UVF men carried modern semi-automatic rifles.

  • andnowwhat – thanks, you got it in one.

    derrydave – A lot of us left this story on Monday believing that there had been some kind of knee jerk reaction to dodge any expected Royal visit. The full story took a while longer to realise. Ruth Patterson must have been out of the loop. And at the same time, Sinn Fein’s deliberate programme to use language of reconciliation and engagement (and handshake) seems to work for dFM but not a Lord Mayor.

    Plenty of issues.

  • cynic2

    Its the oul Stormont sham fight again. Yoursuns have a go atus then oursuns will have a go at you and then we will all have a wee chat over a drink while the sheep troop in to vote

  • “some kind of knee jerk reaction to dodge any expected Royal visit”

    The ‘dodge’ certainly appears to have been pre-mediated and, in political parlance, involved collusion between the two main parties.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks Alan,seems to me it is more difficult than one assumes to make sense of the intricacies of SF or any parties actions.

    I think that overall the present Lord Mayor suggests something more positive than negative for NI.
    He is an example of the legacy of the troubles hence some of the problems he has had to deal with. Seen in this light he has done well.

    However the present issue gives us a window on divisions within Rep/SF in that those who are now middle class and in the establishment are seeing “why not meet the queen” others see this as an important point of principle. Tom Hartley was someone who felt the brunt of this dispute within republicanism.

    In a normal society ofcourse ‘retiring’early so that the DUP who really,really wanted to meet the Queen woud be seen as an act of generosity, but in NI it is infact a republcan solution to to an age old problem.

  • lamhdearg2

    “Once a month, the postie delivers”
    i hope you dispose of it wisely, yer bin man might get the wrong idea.

  • lamhdearg2

    I not i, one hundred times.

  • babyface finlayson

    Grannie Trixie
    I agree broadly that Niall has brought more positive than negative to the party. He represents the transition I suppose.
    The decision to step down early (clearly not his) makes sense and will soon be forgotten.
    It will be interesting to see how the next (DUP apparently) Mayor compares.
    I get the feeling that a lot of this new embracing of the other is carefully co-ordinated.

  • Very carefully coordinated. The peace process (with emphasis on ‘process’) continues …

  • Comrade Stalin

    What I find most interesting about all this is the way the media are trying to spin up a scandal where it appears none exists. As usual Jim Rogers is wheeled out to do the usual rentaquote thing, but nobody else of note can apparently be found to go on record over this matter.

    This is the sort of thing that makes Peter Robinson’s complaints about the media trying to talk achievements down ring rather true. In this case, co-ordinated attempts are being made, apparently led by the Belfast Telegraph, to downgrade what appears to be a rather reasonable and civilized gentlemen’s agreement into a scurrilous snub to HMQ.

  • Trapattoni

    Alan, Niall has attended an event in the Church.

    Indeed, kudos to the Lord Mayor who is from an area close geographically, but far removed politically from the location of the sculpture, for his warm participation in the event. The speeches were held in the local Presbyterian Community Church. The Lord Mayor quipped that he was no doubt the first person from the (nationalist) Short Strand area to preach in the Presbyterian Church; to which the minister replied that indeed he was. In fact, he joked, if it had happened 20 years previously, there would have had to be an offering – to finance the rebuilding of the church!

    I don’t known whether or not he has ever been invited to attend a service there.

  • Trapattoni – interesting. Hadn’t realised they’d used the church as part of the sculpture launch. Glad to hear Niall was there.

  • Trapattoni

    I also found this picture from the sculpture launch.

  • Trapattoni – nice BCC snap – but outside on the other side of the road from the church!

  • Trapattoni

    What’s the policy on taking picture in the church?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Trap, Presbys usually leave it up to each congregation/minister so I’m not sure. Once again I will add that the hand over a few days earlier than usual is a non story and was common sense. To be honest my biggest gripe with Niall’s Mayorality remains the fact that a 25 yr old with no real achievements gains the highest office in the city within days of being elected. I shows a disrespect for the office, for the council and therfore for the people of Belfast. Sadly the Republican mindset still seems to reward such stunts.

    PS. I like the statues, dignified but not too stylised, seem to add to and lift their setting not clash or overwhelm it.

  • Trapattoni

    As I said at the time of Niall’s election, an SF member for 10 years a hard working local rep for 5 of those and a press officer for 3, also a politics graduate so he wasn’t as green as some people thought.

  • Comrade Stalin

    This “highest office in the city” thing is stupid. The Lord Mayor has no role in the council that requires any kind of executive or administrative competence. The best Lord Mayors are the ones who are seen everywhere putting a positive message out about the city and the people who live and work in it, and on that count you can’t complain much, with the exception of the issue around the army cadet.

    And in terms of “rewarding stunts” or “demeaning the office” it doesn’t take long to take a little trip down memory lane of the unionist repertoire yields little that is positive. Nationalists despite comprising a substantial minority weren’t granted a look-in; gays were denounced as “perverts”; the Dalai Lama was deliberately snubbed and insulted, the Mayor of Dublin was famously snubbed by Herbert Ditty who called him a “foreigner” as if receiving foreign politicians was not part of the role; and the City Hall was routinely hijacked for unionist political protests.

    So a bit of perspective might be in order when assessing the suitability of various councillors for the job.