Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: Changing attitudes in Stormont and determined to change South Belfast in May

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

  • SaffronDuck

    Of course they’ll fight South Belfast this time. They would realistically be aiming, with a high liklihood of success, at taking out McDonnell this time (added benefit of undermining SDLP leader) and positioning themselves as leading non-Unionist candidate next time. Vote SF you’ll probably get a Unionist but next time… template has been used before. Only risk is letting Alliance through the middle in a seat they’d retain once got. Still no lose for SF in that. It’s a lose lose for SDLP and they clearly aren’t going to be offered the deal they rejected before but now need

  • Morpheus

    How long before someone says “ooooooooh, he said ‘the North'”?

    I wonder though, is he an anomaly or the future direction of SF?

  • SaffronDuck

    His main business is the Andytown News. Read it. It may reveal if he’s fresh air in practice or windbag

  • Kevin Breslin

    Firstly, bit of friendly advice – if you objectify undermining the SDLP as an electoral priority, that’s negative politics, the same negative politics we’ve seen against Durkan and against Ritchie, it doesn’t win a seat. It’s great for the Sinn Féin ones who would vote for Sinn Féin anyway, but it does nothing to broaden appeal, doesn’t address any local issues.

    Sinn Féin has every right to build in South Belfast, the SDLP has every right to build in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

  • Kevin Breslin

    So journalism not politics?

  • SaffronDuck

    You misunderstand. I’m suggesting an internal strategy not anything that would be articulated or in line with Maitin’s personal stance. Running Mairtin this time with a strong campaign would have the most likely effect of ensuring the SDLP lose not SF win. If the SDLP lose that benefits SF longterm – SDLP leadership fight and a weak candidate to fight in SB next time (unless APNI slip through middle). Running him is no loss to SF but a possible benefit in future Assembly or Westminster election after this. Old fashioned types called it a spoiler candidate

  • John Gorman

    Not too sure MoM can do a lot in this constituency. He can certainly improve the SF vote in an STV election. That may help get an extra council seat at some point in the future. SF have one seat in the bag for the assembly anyway. A second seat is highly unlikely especially considering that in 5 years each constituency will have only 5 mla’s. As for Westminster I cant see who other than die hard SF voters would actually vote for him this time round. When McDonnell stands down that might open things up a bit for him but its still a huge task. Gerry Kelly is struggling to catch up Dodds in NB despite big demographic shifts helping him, despite his opponent being so unlikeable to nationalists in general together with the camp twaddell farce and yet he is struggling to make up the couple of thousand votes needed so how is MoM in SB going to treble the existing SF vote to win in the next 5 years without any of those helping factors?

  • Cris Cross

    ‘New this’…. ‘Fresh that’…. blah, blah, blah… All this and then he refuses to take his seat at Westminster….Some ambassador that!

  • Aaron Aababab

    ” I have a five fingered left hand here”

    Does he actually have an extra digit or can he just not count?

  • Kevin Breslin

    If McDonnell stands down the natural successor for the seat would probably be Claire Hanna.

  • John Gorman

    Yes but she might not automatically inherit mcDonnells broad coalition of voters that he seems to have collected over the years

  • alexbr

    Nothing wrong with that Kevin but when theyre facing an orange pact to keep seats, like they still do with property out of fenian hands the green side have to fight back. The SDLP fail to see this and will continue sliding down the polls

  • alexbr

    Whatabouttheira yap yap yap…..
    Lets try and give a man a bad name yap yap yap
    Unionism have statues and memorials all over the north to people who treated my parents and their parents as they would dog dirt on their shoes.
    At the UVF gunrunning celebration all shades of unionism stood as one. The TUV UUP Shankill butchers UDA etc who would vote for that sort, oh wait.

  • alexbr

    In other news shinners breathe oxygen, bastards.

  • alexbr

    Only joking shinners don’t breathe oxygen. I dont want to be responsible for mass suicide by suffocation.

  • Neil

    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. O’Muilleoir doesn’t discount problems in areas like job creation West of the Bann

    Or for that matter, west of Castle Street or in most cases the Lagan.

  • Ernekid

    I really like Mairtin O’Muilleoir. He’s great at reaching out and engaging with the people he represents. I much prefer him to Big Grey Al who’s running the SDLP into the ground.

    M O’M is one of the few Sinn Fein people I’d consider voting for and I probably will.

  • Ernekid

    You’re right, You’ve four fingers and one thumb on each hand.

  • Gaygael

    I like MOM. As others have said, he is the acceptable face of Sinn Fein, and previously I have suggested that Sinn Fein have potentially two strategies with his candidacy.
    1) it’s sabre rattling at the SDLP, and he will be pulled at some stage on order to shore up those addional votes in North Belfast and FST.
    2) as said above. It’s to take enough votes so that the SDLP leader is decapitated (it’s ok, he has another elected position, and a gp surgery). It’s so that Sinn Fein can further destabilise the SDLP. The seat swings unionist and MOM is a minister in the next assembly and positions himself as the moderate candidate for that seat at next Westminster.

    Personally, the second one is dodgy from my perspective. Could the SDLP bring forward a new leader if the invisible Doc is deposed? One that may reenergise the party? Maybe. Maybe not. Allowing Big Al to trundle on into obscurity dragging the SDLP with him may work better. The real blow could be if SDLP barely hold their 3 at WM and Big Al clings onto leadership until getting floored at the assembly.

    I do thinks it’s remiss however to talk about his boundless energy, self financing adventures as Lord Mayor and ability to commit fully to the job, without drawing attention to his wealth. He is an entrepreneur. And wealthy.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Great job on getting him on the record on stepping aside in the election (which I see the Irish News have now picked up). He went beyond “no plans to stand down” to “no possibility”. I think the SDLP will be worried.

    On the other hand, I wonder if SF have thought this through beyond claiming Big Al’s scalp. Westminster increasingly seems like exile; SF’s other MPs are seldom heard of, except when someone in their constituency gets shot. The real decisions are all happening up at Stormont. Do they really want an obviously capable politician out of the cockpit ?

    It comes across to me that if you strip back Ó Muilleoir’s energetic talk and his obvious enthusiasm, I could identify little substance in any of what he said. No harm to the guy, he’s very likable, but this interview was a spoken-word election address – all about all the great stuff he’s done, places he’s been, and how good he is at working with everyone. The only detail I got was that he thinks that youth unemployment needs to be a priority in economic policy. I have no idea what M O’M would do if he got into power.

    “We need to get cracking” he said. So what are the first five things you’ll do when you win ?

  • Chris McCracken

    Just to let everyone know Mairtin O’Muilleoir and Naomi Long will be considering the future politics of Belfast and N Ireland on 5 February @ 6pm at Queen’s University (in the Canada Room). The event is organised by RSA Ireland, and will be chaired by BBC Talkback presenter, William Crawley. As with all RSA events it will be free and open to all, but will be limited to 100 seats. I’ll post a registration link on Slugger in the next few days.

  • hugh mccloy

    It didnt take long to get the distraction politics game out with far wider issues hitting the country

  • Tacapall

    ” he thinks Stormont has a low approval rating then does he think Sinn
    Fein’s utter exploitation of expenses and setting up non-existant
    research companies to siphon off taxpayer’s money might have something
    to do with that and what does he have to say on guilty party colleagues?
    I would like to hear MOM’s response to such questions”

    Walk into any republican funded body like Tar anall, any interface projects, restoritive justice groups, any republican group that is funded and you’ll find the same people doing either the same jobs or a different title for the same job for the same people in the same offices for the last 15 odd years its money keeping all these people on board and the British government will either publically or covertly keep allowing those same mouths to feed in the same troughs. Someone has to bullshit all those who weren’t viewed as being part of the clique but are need as skivies during elections,

    Does anyone honestly believe those faces from the loyalist side are not doing exactly the same thing, just look at Winkie just a poor boy from the Shankill but he’s gone up in the world being a part of all the policing boards, interface projects, youth schemes and lord knows what eles.

    They say money doesn’t grow on trees but in this part of the world money grows from creating conditions that require concessions, otherwise known as money.

    Thats the price of peace my friend unionist politician know this and even rubber stamp its approval without the cash I really dont think the peace would have lasted this long.

  • Thomas Girvan

    He is about as genuine as his boss in “the North”, Martin McGuinness, the erstwhile comrade of Father James Chesney of Claudy notoriety, who never misses a publicity shot, bums about how he met the Queen ( the second time around ) and of course left the IRA in 1974.
    Mind you, Mairtin was good at exposing the largesse in the Belfast City Council’s junkets, when he was a City councillor. Fair play to him.
    Let’s hope he will maybe focus on the public money being doled out hand over fist to pay for Sinn Fein’s bogus “Research Services Ireland” company and their erroneously named “Special Advisors”!

  • T.E.Lawrence

    On that point – What exactly can An Absentionist MP Do ? It’s basically a Zombie Vote is’nt it ?

  • Dec

    He’s no Gregory Campbell, that’s for sure.

  • Thomas Girvan

    I think you will find that Frankie McBride got it right.

    Five little fingers,

  • mickfealty

    I love this subtle shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ here:

    My politics are about addition and multiplication, not division and subtraction.

    Mairtin and I are almost exactly of an age. To that extent I’ve probably taken a closer interest in his progress than many other politicians, not least because so few of us managed to make it in a political world held in thrall by the war generation that came before us, and the ambitions of those now slowly making their way behind us.

    We were old enough to experience the Troubles from start to end, but young enough to avoid being at the most vulnerable age when the ‘war’ was at its worse. By the time of Mairtin’s break into Belfast City Council the British had more or less got the Provisionals pinned down and were doing their best to worm their way through the high command. There was little glory in the political end of business.

    I have to say that I’m heartened by this statement, not least because it is a very long way from his thinking back in the 1980s. In an essay entitled The Necessity for Cultural Liberation he made some useful division between Irish Republican Values and what he referred to as Anglo American Values, which pitted ‘human dignity’ against ‘materialism’, ‘equality’ against ‘consumerism’, and ‘the sharing of property’ against ‘individualism’.

    All very divisive, and erm, probably not something he’d want to stand entirely behind
    these days (what with profitable private business interests on both sides of the Atlantic).

    But Rome wasn’t built on aspiration alone. Nor will any future form of a united Ireland. The concerning thing is that republicans (never mind unionists) seem to have no discernable strategy for delivering the kind of aspirations Mairtin articulates above. Even the party’s abstentionism reads as little more than a coping strategy than a promise of actual delivery.

    I thought in the limited terms offered by the office of Lord Mayor of Belfast Mairtin did a great job of lifting spirits after a pretty dire year triggered by the flag controversy. But even with David’s gentle, even giving interview technique, he simply avoids questions about his own party’s poor delivery in its own backyard. It gives a distinct impression of someone who is deeply reluctant to make himself and his party answerable for their own actions/inactions.

    Of course the system enables such frugal democratic centralism to thrive, but in the meantime the issue of poor delivery is not going to go away, you know… 😉

  • streetlegal

    There is one simple question to be put to this Provisional Sinn Fein candidate. Was he ever a member of the Provisional IRA and if not, why not?

  • mickfealty

    Bang on Saff!

  • barnshee

    “Thats the price of peace my friend unionist politician know this and even rubber stamp its approval without the cash I really dont think the peace would have lasted this long.”

    Could not agree more

  • barnshee

    He’s no Gregory Campbell, that’s for sure.

    Jasus coun`t cope with two

  • David Crookes

    “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.” – it’s some ambassador who won’t set foot in Parliament. Off to a good start there.

    Briilliant, teehee.

  • Zeno

    I’d pay good money not to go to that.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    That had not occurred to me Saffron. It’s an excellent bit of Machiavellian thinking and it’s almost certainly what SF are up to. There is no clear candidate in the SDLP to succeed McDonnell. It clearly has to be an MP or MLA, and the two other MPs are both ex-leaders which leaves the MLAs.

    A lot rides on whether or not the Unionists run a unity candidate. If they do, the SDLP are in trouble. If they don’t, Al might just hang on, especially if Alliance voters vote tactically.

  • Zeno

    It would have been more interesting if he had been asked a few awkward questions rather than be given a free-roll at promoting himself?

  • Kevin Breslin

    If Martin Ó Muilleoir really wants to change attitudes, why isn’t he going after non-nationalist votes?

  • Kevin Breslin

    @Saff and Mick

    Firstly there’s no such thing as a spoiler candidate in a PR-STV election. If you can’t get your quotas on transfers you don’t deserve to get in.

    Secondly the big problem for hard-line Sinn Féin supporters in Fermanagh-South Tyrone is unionist votes, even having the right to vote, the big problem in South Belfast is that it needs unionist transfers at the SDLP’s expense.

    What is the ideal here for Sinn Féin, all I am seeing is the pact desires is the need to polarise Catholics against Protestants in both South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone.

    It will just show that Sinn Féin has given up on Unionist outreach, just as Unionists have given up on Irish nationalist outreach by unity pacts, in both constituencies just like in the other sixteen, the SDLP has at least the guts to try and fail.

    Why are Sinn Féin so fussed on sectarian pacts if it thinks it can deliver a united Ireland through the ballot box?

    Can it not win Protestant votes in Protestant areas?