That was the year that was

By Jude Collins

Niall ó Donnghaile is running late. His assistant (she’s got a fancier title than that) Daiva, a charming young Latvian woman, tells me he’s up in the Shankill at a major boxing tournament. So she shoos me into the Mayor’s Parlour, where there are framed pictures of the Easter Proclamation and of the United Irishmen, with Her Majesty regarding them inscrutably from another frame on the opposite wall.

Daiva brings me tea and I’ve just poured the milk  when she says: “Ah, that’s him, I know his voice” and moments later the Mayor comes bustling in. We move to a smaller but equally grand room and get started. I don’t know about the Mayor’s time, but I’m on a parking meter.

First – like Inez McCormack a few weeks back – that name. Shouldn’t it be pronounced ‘Neil’?  It should, but he hated being called ‘Neil’ at school, so to friends and family and everyone else he’s ‘Nye-all’.  But wait a minute – he’s the Lord Mayor. Shouldn’t I be addressing him as ‘Your Worship’ or something?

“I don’t really care,” he says with a shrug. “People on occasion have introduced me as ‘The Right Honourable’. I usually say ‘If only you knew me, you’d know there’s nothing honourable about me.’ I prefer Niall.”

Fair enough. But how did someone so young get into politics in the first place? He tells me that shortly after coming into office, he was interviewed by the BBC and there was a whole brouhaha about his parents having been former political prisoners.

“I was born into a republican household but I wasn’t indoctrinated into republicanism. I think growing up in a community like the Short Strand you inevitably ask questions. Why are there walls around your area? We used to go to school on a bus from the bottom of Thompson Street and go up Shaws Road to the Bunscoil. Between the Strand and the Markets  and the Lower Ormeau, we used to have to pass three permanent UDR checkpoints every morning. And gleefully each morning, the bus would be stopped at each of the three. The bus would be searched and checked, schoolbags occasionally turned over. More often than not, our parents, who would have been volunteering on the bus to look after the kids going to school, would have been trailed off the bus, because many of them would have been republicans or political activists, some of them former political prisoners as well. So you inevitably began to ask questions about things like that. Then later I got interested in grass-roots social issues and Sinn Féin seemed to be the only party working on them. My initial involvement in politics, then, albeit from a republican perspective, was probably more around those grass-roots social issues than it was about going out to free Ireland – although I believe in a united Ireland, that’s the bedrock of my politics.”

But I still want to know what a twenty-something like him is doing up to his armpits in politics? Most young people of his age are out looking for a laugh and the nearest pub.

“I’ve looked for plenty of pubs – and found plenty of pubs – over the years. That’s something I have the benefit of because of where we are politically today. We’re in a changed Belfast, a changed political climate. So I have that luxury, I have that opportunity. I went to Jordanstown and studied politics at university,  I enjoyed my student days. But I think I have the same social circle that I had from school. My core group of friends are those I’ve had for a long time.”

But still – a politician, and so young?

“People call me a politician sometimes, and I’m at pains to correct them. I’m a political activist. I don’t consider myself a politician. A political activist is continually pursuing new issues, new agendas. I’m not coming into City Hall or into politics to become stagnant.”

When he first realised he was to become the Mayor of Belfast, how did he react ?

“I’d be telling lies if I didn’t say the knees began to wobble a bit, because they did. I knew that this is a heavily-scrutinised role. I ended up asking the party were they sure, and gave them about six or seven reasons why I thought they shouldn’t pick me and should pick someone else. But they gave me a rationale for it and gave me a bit of time to think about it. And I thought, I can do this. And I’d like to do it.  Besides, my da always told me ‘If you’re not nervous, if you’re not a bit scared, there’s something wrong.’”

Chairing official meetings was the most daunting prospect at first. It’s one thing to chair a meeting in the Short Strand, or even an internal party meeting, but City Hall was another matter.

“Then I got a copy of the Standing Orders for meetings and I found Standing Orders is a wee bit like the Special Powers Act – there’s that magical line at the end that pretty much overrules the whole Standing Orders. At the end it says basically that the final decision will be with the Lord Mayor. Once I knew that, I was a wee bit more settled, I knew the ball game then.”

Was his elevation greeted with much rejoicing in his community?

“They had this great cavalcade from City Hall over to the Strand. There’s actually a video of it on YouTube. The car and all these cars following behind me beeping their horns. When I pulled into the Strand there were banners and music blaring, neighbours and family and friends out on the street. A community like the Short Strand has lived in the shadow of what was one of the biggest industries in the world at one time, who have felt for so long removed, without a voice, and here they had one of their own, not only going into City Council, which was a fantastic achievement in itself, to give those people a voice, but going into the office of Lord Mayor of Belfast. That night I felt incredibly proud because I appreciated the significance of it, and I was only sorry that my grandparents weren’t there to see it.”

His first official job as Mayor was to see off some cyclists at the top of the Whiterock who were heading to Donegal to raise money for Irish-medium activities. Now he’s nearing the end, what, I ask him, was the best part? He’d really rather wait until the year’s over before judging.

the best part? He’d really rather wait until the year’s over before judging.  But he does remember the first day he went to the Shankill to a group called Art Ability, who work with adults with learning difficulties and special needs. Their funding had been cut by the Minister for Health at the time – Michael McGimpsey – a unionist.

“I had spoken to Alex Maskey that morning and he said, ‘Fair play to you, you’re doing what I was never able to do.’ Then I spoke to Tom Hartley and he said,  ‘Fair play to you, you’re doing more than I was ever able to do.’ This was inside ten days of taking office. The media were there but there wasn’t a big brouhaha. But you think of the years Tom and Alex had. They never had the opportunity to go into a working-class loyalist area. But ironically they’d asked for the Lord Mayor of Belfast to come and give publicity to their project because the then Health Minister, a unionist had cut their funding.”

So how was he greeted by them?

“There was a bit of banter and a bit of slagging: ‘Are you all right getting off here?’ and ‘Do you know your way home?’ and stuff like that. It was fine – I was well used to that.  I find regardless of where you are, when you go in and you talk to people, you find some people who view the mayor as this privileged position and therefore they should be subservient to it. There’s a stand-offishness. Not because you’re a Shinner, not because you’re a Fenian from the Strand, but because some people are reluctant to approach what they see as that kind of position.”

How about before Christmas, when there was all the fuss about not awarding that girl her Duke of Edinburgh award?

“That was a hard couple of days. There’s a lot to be said for anonymity – where you can go home and close your door and know you’re not being talked about or a topic of conversation on the radio and TV and in the newspapers. But that’s part and parcel of politics.”

Did it hurt? Did it keep him awake at night?

“Yes. In the middle of it, it was a diffcult few days. Much of the coverage of what happened was totally…” – he pauses – “…alien. There was a notion that I left a girl standing on a stage on her own and walked away. That was not the case at all. To frame it – I attended the event in its entirety. I presented the better part of a hundred Duke of Edinburgh certificates. I saw someone identified in the programme as having received an award for a role as an army cadet. I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to make that particular award and asked for alternative arrangements to be made. I don’t want to see young people being a part of any armed group.”

Right. Then what about this more recent thing – that he’s leaving his post before he’s served his full term in order to avoid meeting a certain royal lady?

“The other week the Belfast Telegraph had a front-page story along the lines of ‘Mayor quits early in snub to the queen’. I first heard about it on the Saturday afternoon when a journalist phoned me. I asked him was the queen coming, because if she was, she hadn’t told Belfast City Hall, so Buckingham Palace must be in the habit of phoning the Belfast Telegraph to give the the queen’s itinerary. The reality is the queen isn’t coming. So it wouldn’t have made a pick of difference if I was there or not. I didn’t snub anyone. Secondly, I’m not resigning early – the Council AGM has been brought forward. Thirdly, the arrangement was made between Sinn Féin and the DUP because the DUP expressed interest in being in office over the jubilee events, because it’s significant for them. They asked would Sinn Féin step aside a few days early and Sinn Féin said they would. That was arranged before I was elected to office.”

He figures the mainstream media are good at preaching about good community relations, but “that kind of bogus story throws a hand-grenade into any sort of work that I’ve done. When – touch wood – violence or riots or disturbances break out on the streets of Belfast, I don’t see these preachers of good community relations physically putting themselves between squads of teenagers and men, like people such as me. So once I see more feet on the street from these people, I’ll put a wee bit more credibility on what they’re saying.”

And what achievement in his year of office is he happiest with? The year’s not over yet, he points out. That said, he is more passionate about one thing than most.

“When I was elected, one of the first issues that was raised with me was suicide, a huge issue, one that impacts across Belfast. So I spoke to the senior officers here and said I want to take a major initiative on  suicide. I’m not going to solve the problem, but I wanted to go round the different groups and organisations quietly and privately, which I did. Hear their experiences, hear their views, hear what they thought we could do. I tasked people to go away and develop a plan around what we could do. I wanted those practical, tangible things in place so I could say in ten years’ time: ‘That’s there because of the initiative we took.’

So he’s soon to be an ex-mayor – what now? Will the rest of his career be an anti-climax?

“I remember Martina Purdy of the BBC telling me I’d peaked very early. I don’t know if she’s right or not.  I’ll take up whatever role with the same activist republican frame of mind.”

But, I point out, however worthwhile such work is, it’ll be much more low-profile. The mayoral frame shakes with laughter.

“I can live with that. Oh yes – I can live with that!”

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