It’s never easy to fit in time for an interview with one of Northern Ireland’s most active politicians. Always on the move, the new Sinn Féin MLA for South Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir met me at the Welcome Organisation on the Falls Rd last night to talk about his views of Stormont and the upcoming elections in May.
I began by asking him about stepping down as Mayor of Belfast last June. I recalled my impression of that night in the chamber that he looked incredibly down at leaving the job.
Ó Muilleoir told me that he made the most of his time as Mayor with around 55,000 miles travelled (90% paid for out of his own pocket) and 2000 engagements he was happy with what he had achieved. The South Belfast MLA told me that nobody should live their life being a “former anything” and gives off to BBC Talkback presenter William Crawley for introducing him as the “former Lord Mayor.” From his perspective, he made the most of his time in the job but is happy to move on with his work.
That was the past; I was keen to know about his present role as the MLA for South Belfast and how he finds Stormont.
Ó Muilleoir said that it was a great honour that the party asked him to serve in this capacity, but hopes that the electorate don’t think the move of Alex Maskey over to West Belfast was a case of fancy footwork. The Sinn Féin MLA told me that it had always been his intention to build on his work as Mayor of Belfast and whilst he didn’t expect an opportunity to come up in Stormont until 2016, he says it is a “privilege” to serve the people and that it is the right fit for him to be able to make a contribution to public life in Belfast.
I reminded Máirtín about an answer he gave me in a previous interview about the impact his business background has on the way he viewed politics. For him, one of the main problems with the current Assembly and its low approval ratings stem from the slow pace of delivery and the effectiveness of the changes made. Attributes which he learned in business as being essential are not apparent in Stormont at the present time. Candidly, Ó Muilleoir said that neither Sinn Féin nor himself can change this alone, but it has to be done by the two main parties working together.
As he talks about Stormont’s performance, the South Belfast MLA says criticism goes across all parties and himself. He believes that not enough has been done to promote reconciliation and prove that devolution can be a positive in people’s lives. Essentially for him, MLAs stand or fall together.
The promotion of the positive side of politics is a constant reference point for Ó Muilleoir as he repeated the total disinterest in negative politics and his desire to work with colleagues in the DUP to bring about positive change in areas like youth unemployment. A particularly apt quote on his general political outlook would be;
My politics are about addition and multiplication, not division and subtraction.
The Sinn Fein MLA takes this message of forging common ground further with praise for Arlene Foster and the agencies within her department for their job creation record throughout 2014. Ó Muilleoir doesn’t discount problems in areas like job creation West of the Bann but says that we can only address this through collaboration and working with Ministers in the Executive.
Looking to the future, Ó Muilleoir is Sinn Fein’s candidate for South Belfast in the upcoming Westminster General Election. Back in November Sinn Féin made a pitch for a joint ticket in some constituencies with the SDLP, I asked Máirtín whether at this stage he would be pulling out of the race?
Well it’s not that I’m not, Sinn Féin isn’t. I think there is zero possibility that Sinn Féin will withdraw from this race. I think the conditions are different from 2010, I think the offer was made and spurned. So, we need to push on, I think it’s the most open election of all the local Westminster elections, I think it’s there to be won and it will be won by the best candidate, by person who can convince the electorate of South Belfast that they offer positive change, that they offer an agenda of building Belfast and I will be in there fighting for every vote.
I was curious, what did he make of Alasdair McDonnell his main nationalist rival?
Well I have many opponents, what I always do is I always have respect for all my adversaries and all my opponents in politics and we focus on what we will bring to the job rather than what our opponents are offering the electorate.
But did he think he was a good MP?
Here’s what my agenda is for an MP for South Belfast, it needs to be someone who will be like the Minister for South Belfast, the Ambassador for South Belfast, it needs to be somebody who will work with the other MPs in Belfast. The economic engine, the cultural engine, the commercial engine of the North is Belfast, so we need a completely different approach to this and it can no longer in my view be just here’s just the South, we all sink or swim together. It needs to be someone who can stand up and say after their period, that the cause of reconciliation has been advanced and here’s how we can see that.
South Belfast is an exemplar in terms of cross community, Stranmillis, Ballynafeigh in particular and Carryduff. It’s an exemplar in terms of tolerance and multi-racial society. Now we need to celebrate those facts but need to show that South Belfast can lead the city in those ways and have the models that have grown up there organically, often without politicians, we need to get those into the rest of the city. So, that’s what I am going to do and I have no particular view on how anyone else has done their job so far.
I put to him the likely charge from the SDLP that this vision was all well and good, but if he wasn’t going to take his seat was this not a little bit academic?
I think it’s wholly irrelevant, if you looked at the MPs for South Belfast over the last 20 years and you told me what they achieved in Parliament, I have a five fingered left hand here and I don’t think you can point to five things. So, I think it’s wholly irrelevant….
One thing that came across very clearly is that Ó Muilleoir is in this to win and not just be what he calls a “paper candidate.” He believes that the people of South Belfast are looking for new leadership and a change from what has gone before. He is likely to run hard and run it right down to the wire which will pose some problems for the SDLP leader who not only has to focus on his constituency but also holding the other two seats that his party holds.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs