When Máirtín Ó Muilleoir returned to Belfast City Council after an absence of fourteen years he must have hoped that it would be a changed place.
His book – Belfast’s Dome of Delight – documents his journey as the “novice ambassador from the independent republic of Anderstown” to the council chamber as the nationalist (and in particular Sinn Fein) presence on the council grew.
Sinn Fein’s offices in the council were bombed by the UVF in May 1994. The election of a Sinn Fein councillor to the position of Deputy Lord Mayor for the first time in June 1998 was followed by Cllr Marie Moore’s being barred from Lord Mayor Bob Stoker’s inaugural dinner. The exchanges inside and outside the council chamber were heated and at times violent.
Time had moved on. 2011 would surely be different. A new mature politics was …………… cracked by cadet-gate and nearly completely shattered following the flags debacle the next December. At times the relationships and emotional intelligence of the council seem to have gone backwards.
When I met Máirtín Ó Muilleoir a few months ago he came across as a man impatient for a better city. His twitter username @newbelfast seems apt. People working in the social economy sector in East Belfast speak appreciatively of Máirtín’s willingness over the years to share expertise allowing the east of the city to tap into funding that the west had learnt to access.
Like a game of snakes and ladders, every Sinn Fein Lord Mayor has rolled the dice a few more times, dealt with a few more taboos, and on balance moved forward up the board towards normality.
Máirtín’s term of office seems to be pushing hard to move further and faster than his three Sinn Fein predecessors. But then he’s nearly a post-Sinn Fein mayor, a republican but also an entrepreneur, the
managing director of Belfast Media Group [he’s stepped aside from his business interests this year] whose contact book must be as full of New York and Boston phone numbers as those in Belfast or Dublin. pointy-headed boss
Back in June, the new Lord Mayor said:
I will make respect my watchword during the year. I will stretch myself.
This morning in the City Hall, Máirtín launched his Vision for Belfast [download as PDF] summed up as
Building the future Belfast – together.
Introducing the document, he said:
In all of my work, I pledge to remain relentlessly positive about Belfast, its people and its future … Today I am revealing my vision of how I can use the office of Mayor to build a better Belfast. I ask for your help in making my vision a reality. First and foremost, that means building the peace and working hard to bring our people together.
It also means striving to create jobs. And of course in all our work we have to ensure that our working class communities enjoy a greater share of the peace dividend.
The vision document includes plans to
- lead a technology trade mission from Belfast to Silicon Valley USA later this year;
- host a business mission to Belfast from New York early next year;
- introduce ‘Future Belfast Fridays’ when his engagements will focus on building confidence in our economy;
- invite all Mayors of towns and cities along the eastern economic corridor to join him in promoting cross border economic development.
In terms of peace-building and bring people together Máirtín is also committing to
- work with the Somme Association and the Royal British Legion to explore ways to pay respect to the unionist and nationalist dead of the First World War;
- partner with the Ulster Museum to borrow and display two major works celebrating the traditions of unionism and republicanism in Belfast;
- host a Civic Forum on the crucial issue of tackling poverty;
- promote the Irish language as “a shared treasure of all”.
He also plans to
- host a Belfast Day on Sunday, 29 September 2013 to celebrate the diversity of Belfast. Local cuisine, literature, minorities, music, youth and all that makes Belfast special will be showcased for all to enjoy;
- appoint a Poet Laureate for Belfast, Sinéad Morrissey (example poem!) – in conjunction with the Arts Council and Arts & Business – to work with residents and celebrate poetry in our great city;
- launch a Lord Mayor’s Commendation Award for those doing outstanding work to build the future Belfast;
- promote the Belfast Ambassadors awards, the first of which has already been presented to Liam Neeson.
You can hear the first three minutes of the Lord Mayor’s interview on Good Morning Ulster. In a rare slip-up, Máirtín answered the wide open first question by talking about the Poet Laureate rather than focussing on jobs and the economy, meaning he ended up wasting interview time defending the (admittedly) laudable idea.
Can remaining “relentlessly positive” make a difference? Will the endorsements from friendly business and cultural leaders (like Terence Brannigan, Howard Hastings, Ian Adamson Mary Trainor-Nagele) extend to politicians from other parties on the council and beyond? Can unionists voice acceptance and respect without immediately rubbishing the whole venture and finding fault with isolated proposals? (Launching on the 31 July may be opportune since some unionist councillors – particularly those active in the Orange Order – may finally have been able to go on holiday.)
While long-term visions and strategies can become dusty and forgotten (or overtaken by events), a set of proposals with only ten months to complete might have a greater chance to achieve something.