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Brian Kingston: Being mayor is like a dream come true for me, it really is the greatest honour I could hope for

Published 13/06/2016

Belfast’s new Lord Mayor, Brian Kingston and (right), at the Tour of the North parade
Belfast’s new Lord Mayor, Brian Kingston and (right), at the Tour of the North parade
Brian Kingston with his mother and father, who was a Methodist minister before becoming a lecturer at Ulster Polytechnic

Belfast's incoming Lord Mayor Brian Kingston tells Rebecca Black about his childhood as a minister's son in south Belfast and his plans for the year ahead.

Q. Was becoming Lord Mayor a surprise? There were rumours that Christopher Stalford had been earmarked for the post before his election to the Assembly.

A. Two of our councillors were running in the Assembly elections, so we couldn't make an appointment until after that. I don't want to go into the internal processes, but the selection wasn't completed until after the elections. Christopher was elected and Frank McCoubrey came close.

I was delighted to be selected by the group, to have the support of my group and the party and now the council. I hope that by the end of my term in office, I will have earned the endorsement of the people of Belfast. I have been almost overwhelmed by all the good wishes of the people so far.

This job is a dream come true. I do genuinely love Belfast. As someone who moved away at a young age to go university and decided to come back. I'm reluctant to use the term Dick Whittington, but it is almost like that.

Q. One of the first things you said as Lord Mayor was that there could be no greater honour for you as a Belfast man. Can you tell me about your background?

A. I was born in the city in 1966. My father was a Methodist minister when I was born, but later left that to become a lecturer at what was then Ulster Polytechnic, which went on to become part of the Ulster University. I have two older brothers and two younger sisters. We lived in Ravenhill, and later Stranmillis.

I had a good childhood - always very active, out playing football on the street. I did a paper round for the Belfast Telegraph for about six years, which was great preparation for working life - you learn to be reliable and you have to go out in all conditions. I delivered 60 Belfast Telegraphs in a bag on my bicycle - it certainly teaches you discipline. I appeared in the Belfast Telegraph too as a child talking about Santa Claus.

Q. And what about school? Where did you go?

A. I went to Methodist College. I thought about going on to Queen's University, but I decided I had a good chance to go and have a broader experience in life, so I applied to go to Manchester University to study physics, and my parents supported me in that.

I was sponsored by the General Electric Company, and I worked for two summers in their laboratory in London. I wouldn't like to live there full-time, but it is a nice place to live for a while.

At the end of one of the summers when I was a student, I applied to do two weeks of voluntary work at the Corrymeela Centre in Ballycastle. One of the weeks was with a group of families from Springmartin and Ballymurphy, a cross-community group.

Afterwards I visited some of the families. I remember the father of one of the families showing me his house on the Springmartin Road and the bullet holes in the walls below the windows of his children's bedrooms where there were gun attacks happening.

All of this made me realise how little I knew about everything that was happening in my city. For anyone in that era it was only when you went away you realised how much we were all affected by the Troubles, but certainly some people were affected much more directly.

I suppose everyone just tried to keep going. I only discovered later in life that a second cousin of my mum had been shot dead. I wasn't told at the time - he was a police officer.

I decided I wanted to come home to Northern Ireland. So I came home and applied for a year placement at Corrymeela. That was a year which included some terrible events such as the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing, the sequence of deaths from Gibraltar, Milltown cemetery, Andersonstown. I remember the bus bombings at Lisburn and Ballygawley. It was a very difficult time when the Troubles were still at their height.

At that stage I wasn't sure whether I would go back into science or carry on in a different line of work. During that year I worked with a wide range of groups and heard a wide range of views. That was all very eye-opening for me, and visiting groups in their home situations. I decided to continue in community work.

Q. So what was your next step?

A. I applied to work in an ACE scheme in the Suffolk estate in west Belfast. I went to live in that area. It's an isolated Protestant estate in west Belfast and a close-knit community. For me, this was the start of another education in community development and in supporting individuals who are trying to improve circumstances for people. This was in 1988. I then worked for a year on the Falls Road for Worknet, then in Rathcoole on the Bytes Project, which is a personal development programme for young people through access to IT and computer skills.

I then got a job working for the Greater Shankill Community Council as a community development worker, which brought me to the Shankill area where my main work has been.

I was a joint founder of the Shankill Mirror newspaper and became the manager for seven years which was an extremely busy job. In all of my jobs I did a lot of extra hours, but you accept that is part of your commitment.

I have been fortunate to do work that I regard as important and I take satisfaction from trying to make a difference and working with people who are trying to improve society and improve communities. All of these were good preparation for going into politics - both community work and journalism. When you are running a newspaper you have to deal with every issue that affects an area. There were difficult issues happening such as the loyalist feud, the dispute on the Ardoyne Road, Holy Cross.

Q. And what came after that? What did you do then?

A. I started working with the Upper Ardoyne Community Partnership. While I was in community work I always had an interest in politics, but I wasn't a member of any political party.

Then one evening Nigel Dodds rung me up and offered me the chance to work for him. I asked for a day to think about it because I didn't feel I could do it part time as well as being in community work as people might feel I was compromised.

But then I quickly realised it was the chance of a lifetime, so in 2008 I went to work for Nigel and his wife Diane Dodds, who was a councillor in west Belfast at that stage.

In 2009 Diane was elected to the European Parliament, then in 2010 I put my name forward for Diane's council seat and was selected to be the new representative for the Court area (the greater Shankill area) which is a great honour for me, and I have subsequently been elected by the people for two more terms.

You can achieve so much more in the political arena because when you are working with statutory bodies you have more clout when you are a councillor. But it is similar work because you are still trying to push forward areas and still working with communities. And now being elected as Lord Mayor is a dream come true for me. It really is the greatest honour I could wish for, to be Lord Mayor of my home city.

Q. Are your family proud of all your achievements?

A. Yes, my wife Eileen plans to be an active Lady Mayoress. It has come at a good time for us. Our three children - Leanne, Owen and Amy - are all now young adults, we don't have that direct responsibility for younger children and they are all very supportive of me.

It is also happening at a time when my parents are still alive and I was glad my mum was able to come down for my installation as Lord Mayor. My father wasn't able to attend. He unfortunately has dementia and it is quite progressive, and he can become anxious when he is out of his home environment. But he was able to come down the following day and we got photographs taken.

Q. Is he aware of the honour for you?

A. Oh yes, he thinks it is wonderful. Dementia is a very cruel thing. My father is an intelligent man, he was a university lecturer, he has a PhD, and lectured at Edgehill. When I meet Methodist ministers from that era, many were taught by him and tell me what a good tutor he was. He was a vegetarian most of his adult life and did his PhD on animal rights. It's very sad to see him lose so much of his mental capacity to dementia. But he is content.

Q. What are your plans for your year as Lord Mayor?

A. I have chosen as my theme, the First Citizen who puts citizens first, and my three priorities are the inclusive growth of our city's economy, increasing our international connections and showing appreciation and support for those groups and individuals who make Belfast a compassionate and caring city.

The Lord Mayor is a position of influence. Obviously it is a great honour to chair meetings of the council and be the first citizen, so when you lay a wreath or do things you are doing them on behalf of the council and the people of Belfast. I want to uphold the dignity of the post but I also want to use it to bring people together.

Q. What was your first engagement as Lord Mayor?

A. It's so new I am still waking up every day and thinking wow, I am the Lord Mayor. My first engagement was at the Stormont estate for the launch of the UK Pipe Band Championships. That one was a really nice one for me because I would attend the event every year, I enjoy pipe bands, and I will be the Chieftain this year.

Q. How Lord Mayors decorate the Parlour has become a talking point in recent years. I see some of what the previous Lord Mayor Arder Carson put up is gone. What sort of things do you intend to put up?

A. Yes, it is fairly bare at the moment, so it is something I will have to give some thought to in terms of personal interests and pieces I am presented with during the year.

Q. Are you looking forward to working with the Deputy Lord Mayor Mary-Ellen Campbell from Sinn Fein? You have very different political outlooks.

A. Having been the DUP group leader on the council I have had to work with other party group leaders over the past year, and we have political differences but generally we try to see how we can reach agreement on issues.

I knew Mary Ellen when I worked at the Bytes project in Rathcoole - she was working for the same project in New Lodge. My years in community work have stood me in good stead. It means I know a lot of the key community representatives and I think that helps because people recognise I have an interest in the area not just as a politician, someone who has put in a lot of voluntary hours.

Q. There used to be some special Lord Mayor traditions such as getting a special lamp-post installed outside their house, have you thought about reviving something like that?

A. A few people have asked me about that. I am not sure whether it is an urban myth. When I was young I remember once it being pointed out, 'that is where the Lord Mayor lives'. But it mightn't be the best use of ratepayers' money.

Q. Is there any event you are particularly looking forward to?

A. We have the centenary of the Battle of the Somme coming up soon which will be a highlight of my year, although a solemn occasion. I will have the honour of laying a wreath on behalf of the people of Belfast on July 1. I am also looking forward to the pipe band championships - I think I will get a kilt for the day.

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