Unionists don't quite know what to make of Mairtin O Muilleoir, Sinn Fein's newly installed Lord Mayor of Belfast. He's not the sort of 'Shinner' they're used to dealing with: in almost the same way that his predecessor, the DUP's Gavin Robinson, was not the sort of unionist that nationalists were used to dealing with. And that fact alone makes him interesting.
O Muilleoir, born in 1959, never belonged to the IRA, but from fairly early on seemed to have the ear of key figures within Sinn Fein's leadership. He belonged to that generation – coming of age shortly after the adoption of the armalite-and-ballot-paper strategy and the political/electoral/psychological impact of the hunger strikes – who recognised that the greatest gains for republicanism would more likely flow from political engagement than from an 'armed struggle' campaign.
Sinn Fein was clearly keen to find a prominent public role for O Muilleoir in the mid-1980s, by now a Queen's University graduate and an articulate new generation voice. His first election attempt, as a local council candidate for the Lower Falls in 1985, was unsuccessful; but in a by-election in October 1987 he had a very comfortable margin of victory over the SDLP.
He arrived at Belfast City Hall at a time when unionists – still a majority – were doing everything they could to exclude the nine Sinn Fein councillors from committees and from the key decision-making processes.
O Muilleoir, by a very long way the most able and media savvy of the Sinn Fein team, initiated a series of court actions successfully challenging discriminatory practices and policies, helping to lay the foundations for the modern, power-sharing council. It was an indication that he understood the importance of picking battles that could be won and on issues that made unionists look like they were incapable of 'having a Fenian about the place'.
What also emerged around that time was that O Muilleoir was a writer and journalist of very considerable ability, able to present the Sinn Fein argument with an easy turn of phrase and, more importantly, with great wit. Very few politicians – even those who are confident media performers – are good, natural writers too. So it's probably not an exaggeration to say that O Muilleoir was one of the most important Sinn Fein figures in Belfast at that crucial period between the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the bedding down of the peace talks process in the mid-1990s.
Ironically, though, for such an important figure (and particularly for someone who has his obvious passion for the media and for making his voice heard) very little is known about his private life or background. Like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness he seems to be fiercely protective of his privacy and of his family and close friends. Tracking down information on O Muilleoir, the individual (rather than the politician and businessman), is difficult and the usual routes, such as Google and Wikipedia, don't yield very much. Which probably explains why the profiles which accompanied his election as Lord Mayor didn't go beyond a wife, four children and the owner of the Belfast Media Group.
Mind you, the owning of a 'media empire' is, in itself, an unusual thing for someone so intimately linked to Sinn Fein. What seems to have happened is that by the mid-1990s O Muilleoir had grown bored with the petty politics and even pettier squabbling associated with City Hall.
Sinn Fein was continuing to make electoral progress and at the 1993 council elections had pipped the SDLP by 10 seats to nine. In essence, there wasn't much more for him to do in what he had so memorably described as the 'Dome of Delights.' So he decided to do something else.
In 1997 he became a partner in the Andersonstown News and grew the business to include the South Belfast News and North Belfast News, as well as the Irish Echo in New York. He was the key figure involved in the development of the Aisling Business Park in west Belfast and has investments in several other businesses across Ireland and America.
Yes, he got his fingers burned a few years ago with the short-lived Daily Ireland, but it was a hit that he was able to take and absorb.
O Muilleoir's business instincts seem almost as shrewd and canny as his political instincts and his determination to make Belfast a focal point for outside investment has won him many friends across the political divide.
While so many others with a party political background seem happier to talk about investment and generating the local economy he has gone out and done it for himself – and made himself enormously wealthy in the process.
So, we know why he went into politics in the mid-1980s and we know why he left it in the mid-1990s: but what's not quite so clear is why he has chosen to return to the Dome of Delights. It's hard to believe that it's just because he wanted to add Lord Mayor of Belfast to his CV. The nature of the relationship between the parties hasn't changed all that much since he left it in 1997: indeed, events of the last few months suggest that it has actually become more bear-pit in nature.
So again, why the comeback? Well, Sinn Fein itself has changed very significantly since 1997 and O Muilleoir is shrewd enough to know that his intervention may be useful again. Within minutes of donning the Mayoral chain he let it be known that he wouldn't be taking down the royal portraits from his office (although he would be placing the 1916 Proclamation alongside) and that he wouldn't rule out attending war remembrance events. The theme of his year in office will be 'Building the future Belfast – Together' and he has also promised to use his worldwide links to boost trade, as well as help businesses which are struggling with rates. It's the perfect message for a divided city and tunes very nicely with the language and actions of Gavin Robinson.
But there is something else to be considered. Sinn Fein has changed and is continuing to change: and O Muilleoir is a classic example of that change. He is, in fact, an almost perfect candidate to succeed Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness – a Sinn Fein businessman, entrepreneur and media mogul with a clean pair of hands. It's hard to see him wanting to hang around City Hall for another five years, but not so hard to see him wanting to be First or Deputy First Minister.
More important, there are very influential figures in Sinn Fein who can and want to see him there.