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Goodbye to City Hall

Last week I retired as a Councillor from Belfast City Council. On the fifth of January 2010, my position as a Councillor will be filled by Nichola Mallon, a young and very talented SDLP activist from Ardoyne. I am delighted that such a young and intelligent woman will take my place representing the people of Oldpark on the Council. My delight is tinged with a degree of sadness having been a member of Council for the past 24 years. Leaving the ‘Dome of Delights’, as Jim McDowell christened it, is a wrench for me as it was there I experienced representative politics at first hand.

When I was first elected to represent Castle in 1985, I entered a City Hall that was shortly to become seriously divided on the issue of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald in November of that year. To my party colleagues and me at that time, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was a huge step forward for the nationalist community. The Unionist parties saw the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a major sell out by Thatcher and the British Conservative Government, that same Government and Prime Minister that had mistreated the Hunger strikers so badly a few years earlier in 1981. Enoch Powell, then the MP for South Down, and a close adviser and friend to the Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, had assured the Ulster Unionist leadership months in advance that there was nothing to fear from the impending Agreement. How wrong was he!

The Unionist rejection of the Agreement led to huge demonstrations and rallies outside City Hall and Paisley’s unforgettable “Never! Never! Never!” speech. It also led to the infamous ‘Belfast Says No’ banner being put on the front of the City Hall until the Courts ordered it to be removed. The combined Unionist majority in the City Hall also instigated an adjournment policy which effectively ended the Council officially doing its ordinary work as a municipality. So as you can see my early years in the City Hall were a baptism of fire.

However my most exciting and fondest memory was my election as Lord Mayor of Belfast in June 1997, through a combination of SDLP, Sinn Fein, and Alliance votes. I also won the support of Councillor Alan Crowe, then an independent unionist. It was a very imaginative and courageous act on his part. Being elected as Lord Mayor of Belfast was a signal honour as I was the first nationalist and SDLP member ever to be elected to be the first citizen of Belfast. I was also the first Catholic to be elected since the City Charter was issued in1613. The political mould was definitely broken on that sultry evening in June. The Unionist monopoly on political power was well and truly broken that memorable day. The politics of the City Hall were changed forever.

Happily now cross community partnership in the City Hall is the order of the day. It is the creation of that partnership that has been the greatest achievement of Belfast City Council over the past quarter of a century and I am glad myself and my other good and principled colleagues in the SDLP, like Joe Hendron and Mary Muldoon, to name but only two, made this our abiding political aim over that period of time.

Partnership between Nationalists and Unionists, Catholics and Protestant, is so important for the future of our society, for without it all levels not just in the City Hall, we will not be able to progress and create the conditions in which a genuine and sustained political and religious reconciliation can take place between our separated communities. The partnership in the City Hall is by no means perfect, but it provides the means of bringing the divided people of this City closer together. If we can reconcile our divided people we can create unity within this great city of ours. If we create a united Belfast, we will have bequeathed a rich inheritance to our children and our children’s children. Let’s make Belfast City Hall a truly Dome of Delights!

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