Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

I will not be retreating into a sectarian bunker

Less than 24 hours after being ambushed by a loyalist mob Mairtin O Muilleoir was back carrying out his mayoral duties. 'I'm first citizen of all of Belfast,' he says

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin, was jostled and heckled by loyalist protesters at the re-opening of a park in north Belfast
Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin, was jostled and heckled by loyalist protesters at the re-opening of a park in north Belfast

I have been telling anyone who asks that I have the best job in Belfast. And, even after the shameful scenes at Woodvale on Tuesday, I still believe that.

In fact, I believe it more now than ever.

For, faced with a choice of going back to our bitter and divided past or moving confidently forward, the people of Belfast have chosen, as Van Morrison would have it, the bright side of the road.

True, small bands of holdouts on both sides are trying to wreck the peace but their best efforts are as nothing when set against our resolve to break the cycle of sectarianism and build the peace.

When elected on June 3, I pledged to build the peace and be a Lord Mayor of all our people, regardless of where they worship or where they live.

I've also promised to do more to bring our sometimes divided people together and to that end I have had rewarding and humbling meetings with many representatives from the unionist community and with the Royal British Legion.

Progress is slow and I've no magic wand, but the outpouring of support from ordinary citizens since the attack at Woodvale tells me that I am on the right path. In fact, I suspect that my efforts at outreach – showing respect for portraits of the royals, visiting Sandy Row with my Deputy Lord Mayor, working closely with the Somme Association and launching a vision statement endorsed by all sides – has infuriated those who would rather I retreated to a sectarian bunker. I have no intention of doing so.

I thank and commend our Finance Minister Simon Hamilton for defending my right as first citizen to travel to every part of our city.

In Belfast, the mayoral diary is decided by officials, not by a self-appointed gang of thugs and bullies.

That's how democracy works and I would be a poor Lord Mayor indeed if I were to fail to defend the high office I hold on behalf of the people of Belfast.

So, for me, it's business as usual. I look forward to receiving invitations to visit every corner of our wonderful city. I know our citizens will understand that I will liaise closely with the PSNI – the safety of the brave men and women of our police service and of council staff is paramount to me. However, I will, with the backing of the people of Belfast, discharge my responsibilities as first citizen of the city we love.

I won't be deflected from my mission to build the future Belfast. But I can't do it alone. I need everyone to put their shoulder to the wheel, to stand proud for Belfast, to stand proud for peace.

I could, of course, fold up my peacemaking tent and be a mayor for some parts of the city and some sections of its people, but I have no interest in such a course and have no doubt our citizens would think less of me if I did.

And I know some may give in to the gospel of despair on witnessing the disturbing scenes at Woodvale and the equally disturbing refusal of some in high places to condemn the violence of the mob. But rather than be downhearted, we should be exultant at the great strides forward we have taken in recent years, progress capped by the hosting of the World Police and Fire Games this week.

For me, I have 42 weeks and four days left in which to build a better Belfast and I don't plan to waste one moment of that period. I will work to boost confidence in Belfast, to tell the world about the warmth of our welcome and the genius of our people. Of course, we face challenges from a violent minority but we have come too far to turn back.

That's the messages this first citizen will be telling the world in the time ahead.

And when I falter or lose my footing, even for a moment, I'll take inspiration from the woman police officer who was battered to the ground at Woodvale. She got up. Immediately. And moved forward again, at great risk, to protect the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Belfast got knocked down this week. But we're back up and we will prevail.

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