Tom Hartley is having difficulty finding a room in Belfast City Hall. Eventually he locates one, a big, shadowy room with a vast table and microphones in front of every chair. I’m slightly overawed by the setting but it doesn’t bother the Sinn Féin Councillor and ex-Lord Mayor of Belfast. We sit and he talks in a strong, lively voice about his beginnings in a two-up-two-down off the Falls Road.
“Growing up, words like partition and pogroms and the border and 1916 – they all sort of seeped into your consciousness. And discrimination. I lived in Harrogate Street and every day the workers of Mackies Foundry passed the bottom of our street. In all my life I never saw one of those workers come into a house in Harrogate Street. I grew up with a northern Catholic view of the world – you always knew that you were cut off, you were left on your own. It wasn’t heavy – I didn’t get daily lessons on what it is to be a northern Catholic or nationalist or republican – but it was there all the time. In the 1930s, my mother worked in Brian Faulkner’s factory down in Victoria Street. She was working there in the mill and she told me that she and her sister had to be taken out in a cage car because of the anti-Catholic nature of the trouble in 1935.”
But none of that limited him when he became a teenager. He wasn’t “a die-hard Catholic” – he had friends from all over the city, he mixed in traditional music circles, met all sorts of people. Then the northern state began to collapse and “all the hidden analyses of your youth began to make sense”. In the late 1960s he got a job at Aldergrove Airport.
“They provided the bus from the city centre up to Aldergrove. There was myself and another chap from Springfield Avenue. This was during the civil rights movement period, and on the bus they were all talking out loud: ‘Oh, them and their civil rights! Them…’ I was half asleep, wasn’t paying any heed to it. It was only later I realised – they were talking out loud because of the two Catholics on the bus. On another occasion, in the canteen, there was this chap who always made jokes about Catholics. And everybody laughed. Until one day I told him he was an effing bigot. They didn’t speak to me for a month.”
In 1969, after Bombay Street was burned, he moved from being a “political innocent” to being part of the republican struggle. Forty years later he’s still involved. “But because I had a life – played traditional music, made bodhráns, went to fleadhs, all before 1969 – to some extent I always saw conflict and struggle as outside normality.”
He became a Belfast councillor in 1993. When he arrived, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann and Máirtín ó Muilleoir were already there.
“When Alex Maskey came in first, they wouldn’t let him into these rooms, they wouldn’t put him on committees, the unionists up in the chamber sprayed air-freshener around him, they used to try to shout them down. All that… crap.
“Today, it’s a very different space. City Hall belongs to everyone in Belfast. It’s more relaxed. Sinn Féin has always been supportive of not just changes in the structure of the Council but also believes that City Hall belongs to the ratepayers of Belfast. You can see that even with Christmas fairs out the front, the Big Wheel, a café at the back now – people come into it now, it’s much more open.”
He says you can see it even in the artwork of City Hall.
“I made the proposal to get the Famine Window in – the first piece of artwork going against the historical fabric. By historical fabric I mean it was a unionist building, reflected in its artwork, its unionist ethos. Our view was, okay, that’s the history of the building. Without stripping out everything, let’s now get a balance where we introduce other narratives. So, for example, the Famine Window, we got that through, then the James Larkin Window, which is about the role of trade unions in this city. We proposed then a bust of Mary Ann McCracken, because there are no women represented. There’s a window just outside the door here of Celtic art, its theme is Cúchulainn. There’s still a bit to go – in relation to the flag, for example – but all in all there’s a whole new atmosphere inside the City Hall.”
Some ten years ago he produced a report on the number of chairs and deputy chairs in City Hall and what parties occupied them. As a result, proportionality was introduced, so parties now get represented on committees in proportion to their electoral strength. And now the same thing applies to the roles of Mayor and Deputy Mayor as well. I ask him – several times – if unionist attitudes to the new dispensation have changed. He fights shy of giving me a yes or no, but tells instead how things were.
“When I first came in here, people would ask me, How did you get on with unionists? And I would say, Well, there’s different degrees of nodding. Now, by and large, most unionists talk to us. Some DUP people still don’t. But change is on its way and there’s no going back. For City Hall to work, you need for Sinn Féin to be able to do deals with the DUP. And that applies to them as much as it applies to us. So you try to create situations that are win-win for communities and win-win for the city. It isn’t about leaving anyone behind or getting the better of anyone. But that all breaks down if parties don’t try to engage. Then the dead hand of lethargy is placed on us.”
I remind him that I heard him speaking at an event recently which commemorated the signing of the Ulster Covenant. What was a good republican boy like him doing at an event devoted to the signing of the Covenant – essentially a unionist event?
“That’s one way of looking at it. But whether I like it or not, it’s part of the history of this city, of this building – and therefore it’s my history. So how do I engage with that history? I don’t have to agree with it, I don’t have to think it was a good thing, but it is part of the history of this city. That means there is a responsibility to try and understand it. Where does the Covenant sit in history? What was its impact? How did it change my life? The Covenant is a history that half of the people of this city claim is theirs. I think it is our history. When we look at the depth and complexity of who we are, then we don’t have to claim everything. I don’t want to be constrained by just a nationalist or a republican way of looking at the Covenant – I do think there are other ways of looking at it.”
He sees the 1912 Covenant as linking to the Scottish Covenant of 1638, which, although it had ‘No Pope Here’ written all over it, contained seeds of democracy that found their way down the centuries through the United Irishmen and on to the present day. “So I want to broaden the narrative in relation to the Covenant, and not get stuck in a historical them-and-us.”
He notes that the three Home Rule Bills – 1886, 1893 and 1912 – are closely linked to the Covenant, and religious violence. “In 1886, there are 150 Catholic labourers expelled from the shipyards. In 1893, there are about 600 expulsions. In 1912, there are 3,000 expelled from the shipyards and industrial sites. That pattern continues right through to the 1970s.”
He breaks off to laugh and deny that he’s some sort of guru, even though I haven’t suggested he is one.
“What I am is a passionate believer in is the complexity of our history. I suppose I should be careful how I say this, but there’s a bitter twistedness about us all that we tend to forget. I think we’ve narrowed the ground of who we are – we are much more complex and layered than we let on.”
When I ask him how much closer he thinks we are to a united Ireland today than when he joined the struggle as a young man, he throws up his hands.
“My answer is, I haven’t a clue, because I can’t foretell the future. I’m of the old school that believes that as well as getting there, the journey is also important. Because in the journey you see things. If anyone ever asked me did I ever meet Jesus Christ, I’d say, I met him in Crumlin Road jail. How? Through meeting human beings who helped other human beings. I’m not just talking about republicans, I’m talking about prisoners who’d give other prisoners food, who’d give a bit of what they had to others. I saw great generosity there and at times a great spirit. It wasn’t in everyone but, nevertheless, that’s where I saw it.”
But back to the united Ireland thing, Tom. Where are we?
“We’re now at a position where we’re moving towards a united, independent Ireland. The real question is not so much when it happens, but will it happen the way I see it or will it happen the way the British state sees it? Who will determine the nature of the united Ireland that’s coming at us? Where we are today is on the periphery of a very large state that doesn’t much care what happens to us. A million and a half northerners, who may have a different political perspective on the island we live on, will bring that into a united Ireland. No-one will be able to stand against the change it will bring – it will create new political dynamics.”
He sees the unionists as being “psychologically vulnerable” in terms of their relation to the British state. “The whole debate about Scotland reminds them of the power of Westminster, that the ultimate decision-making lies with the Westminster parliament.” The unionist relationship to Britain, he says, is like a marriage – with the potential for divorce. “What do the unionists do if the British state says, Well, we don’t really want you?”
I end by wondering aloud why most people give politics a miss apart from voting (maybe), yet people like him devote their lives to it. He laughs.
“I suppose one could argue I’ve a certain weakness in the head. I often think to be a political activist you have to be to a degree selfish – you can drag your family into a scenario because of your principles. That’s not to say your family isn’t republican, but if you’re republican and going to jail, your family suffers. I’ve spent my life in this struggle. At times it was very difficult, at times it was very dark. When I look back on it, I see wisdom is thrust on you – you know, I wasn’t born the guru that I am today!
“But I am still on a journey of discovery in terms of my own politics, in terms of the politics of this community. People think of your republicanism as a label that can be put on you. I don’t see my life like that. I’m always asking, Where are we going, what do we want to do? I don’t want ever to sit back and rest on my laurels. It’s not a grand thing – it’s just that life keeps you on the move. In politics you either go forwards or backwards. If you’re not going forward, you’re dying.”
Has his involvement enriched his life, then?
“Oh yes. I’ve been in houses where I’ve seen enormous generosity. People who would have given us tea, put us up for the night. I tell younger republicans, and I think the Brits never realised this: the real dynamic for achieving what we have achieved are all those families that looked after us. Without them, we were nothing.
“That sense of thinking outside the circumstances of your life, thinking of the good of others. For me, that has sustained me down the years… everything else has broken me!”
And he laughs again.