Arder Carson: 'I'm Lord Mayor for the whole city, Protestant and Catholic'
The Big Interview
The first Lord Mayor of the new Belfast super council, Arder Carson of Sinn Fein, has set his sights on councils getting even more powers in future, he tells Political Correspondent Noel McAdam.
Q. It can't be easy being a republican with a surname like Carson.
A. Well it went down quite well in Lisburn (where he was a councillor for six years). Jonathan Craig was there at the same time so we had a Carson and a Craig. In fact on social media people have put out fake photographs of me appearing to stand next to Edward Carson, and actually the resemblance was quite striking.
It's probably not the most popular surname in my community.
Q. And what about your first name ?
A. It means 'Arthur' in English, although my mother is the only one who ever uses that.
Q. So what qualities do you think you bring to the role of Lord Mayor of Belfast ?
A. First and foremost I would have to say my sense of humour. Certainly let me emphasise I will soberly and seriously fulfil my duties as Lord Mayor, it's not a problem, but I think there is always time for a bit of craic.
Humour and a bit of a laugh is a great leveller and part of my make-up. If you ask people who know me they would I would hope tell you 'he is good craic'. I think they would. I am very personable and a good listener, I think. A people's person. I like to put people at their ease.
I was a community environment worker and youth worker for a number of years and communication with people was very important.
Q. Have you any personal ambitions during your year in office?
A. In terms of ambition I would probably say I am not that ambitious on a personal level. It would be more to do with the communities we serve. I would hope to make the council more accessible to people, to get our services across to the people we serve. If I come out at the end of the year with people having a better understanding and finding it easier to access services, I think I would be happy enough.
Q. Is there a problem in that regard at the moment?
A. No, not really. Belfast City Council I think is very good at getting its messages across to the community. But we have new areas now coming under the new council, people coming in from Lisburn and Castlereagh and North Down and I think it is crucial that we get things right for them. The people there will judge us very quickly, compared to the council areas they have come from. So we have to get that right.
Q. Is it correct you were blocked from top offices including mayor on the old Lisburn council (which has now merged with Castlereagh)?
A. Yes, in terms of the senior positions we were certainly denied any access to being mayor or deputy mayor even though Sinn Fein was the second largest party on the council.
But I would have to say we did break a number of glass ceilings during the time I was there. I was chairman of the district policing partnership - and people of varying political hues will bring policing problems to Sinn Fein because they know we get things done - I was also chair of the council's strategic policy committee, which is one of their main committees, for two years.
So to some extent we have made progress there but the discrimination against the nationalist people in Lisburn by the unionist parties is well documented. I hope those from Lisburn who are now part of Belfast will find they are treated better and more fairly.
Q. And now although the first lord mayor of the new Belfast super council, you are actually the fifth Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of the city.
A. I am someone who failed the 11-plus, who left school without any qualifications and only went to university as a mature student in my mid-30s. But politics is the art of the possible. I am an ordinary working-class person from Andersonstown now the first citizen of this city. I think there is a big message in that. People are always talking about the number of young people who leave school without qualifications. Well, I am one of them.
Q. Does a career as a butcher help in politics?
A. I would say it does, it is about working with people, the ability to engage with people. I was a butcher for 14 years so you do learn lessons when you are dealing with an irate woman unhappy with the meat she is getting. Sometimes in politics it is the fatty meat which you still have to sell to people.
What I mean by that analogy is that it is not just about bringing people good news all the time, you also have the bad news, that you weren't able to do something that someone asked you to - get them a house, for example. There is a skill in being able to do that.
Q. Tell me about your childhood.
A. I was born in 1960, in Andersonstown, and grew up there. In terms of my childhood I would say it was quite understated. By that I mean it was a completely normal growing up, out playing in the streets and so on, nothing out of the ordinary until the outbreak of the conflict in 1969 when I was nine.
Q. How much of that do you remember ?
A. Quite a lot in terms of what change the conflict brought to our lives. I remember a good bit of it although probably more as we moved into the 1970s.
My first recollection would be of a very heavy and intrusive British military presence, when a fort was built at the top of my street and there were soldiers on the streets.
Q. Is this when you became politicised ?
A. Without doubt. How could you not be with what you were having to face every day? I was a teenager during the period of the 1970s and became motivated to act in the interests of local people.
Q. So when, how and why did you join Sinn Fein ?
A. Sinn Fein represents for me our political aspirations, although I would not have called them that at that time. Sinn Fein representatives lived among us, on many issues I could see they were working for local people and I could see my own family, and my neighbourhood, benefiting from that.
But I was a community activist for a long time before I joined the party. That was not until my late 20s. I did all the normal things you do in your 20s. I got married and had a job and had children.
I am 54 now, going on 55 in August. I now have five grandchildren and they are all great kids and of course have lived through the new era we have now since the Good Friday Agreement.
Q. Were you ever involved in the paramilitary side, in the Provisional IRA?
A. Never, no, not in any way. I was interested in being able to effect change and in working with people.
Q. Was it not difficult as a young republican activist not to become involved?
A. No. I was really a community activist. There are many, many examples of people in Sinn Fein who were only ever members of the party and nothing else. For me I have to emphasise it was always about people.
Q. How would you characterise the legacy of the four Sinn Fein lord mayors who have preceded you - Alex Maskey, Tom Hartley, Niall O Donnghaile and Mairtin O Muilleoir?
A. If you did a chart through the years of the Sinn Fein lord mayors I think you would see the progressive development of the city, and how much more mature we have become in so many ways.
Alex had a very challenging year in office, as the first, and he let the way and set the standard for all those who came after him.
Tom and Niall had two very good years in office and of course all of them have made the job much easier for me.
Then Mairtin focused on business and investment and on the development of the city and again pushed the envelope. The challenge for me is to push the envelope a bit further.
Q. In what way?
A. The transfer of planning functions from central government provides "immense opportunities" for Belfast. It's going to be one of the key powers that have transferred to council and I think the challenge is really up to Belfast City Council to make it an effective, efficient service.
I think we'll be more responsive to local needs. This is now Belfast Planning Service and we'll be responding to requests and applications from people in Belfast city - so it's closer to them as a service, it's more accessible to them as a service and we think we will be more effective in delivering that service.
Q. And would you also acknowledge the role of the very first nationalist Lord Mayor, Alban Maginness of the SDLP?
A. Yes definitely, Alban was again a marker, who broke the glass ceiling on this office and made it easier for those who came after him. The most recent SDLP Mayor, Nichola Mallon, was also a fantastic first citizen. I tweeted her last night to congratulate her on her year.
Q. Will you be trying to reach out to Protestant communities in Belfast?
A. Absolutely. I am the lord mayor for the whole city. I'll be reaching out to the Protestant community and hope they will accept that in the spirit in which it is offered. That said, I have not had any invitations yet.
But I want to hear from working-class communities about the issues they are concerned with and how the council can help.
Q. Do you accept they feel they are a diminishing force and population in the city with all the fears and concerns consequent on that?
A. Yes I agree, there are perceptions and feelings that they are disaffected and unfranchised. I think they do feel that way and I would be sensitive to that. It is of course reflected in the shift of the balance of power on the council. (Alliance councillors also hold the balance of power on the new council.)
It is important for me to be able to demonstrate that I stand behind the Sinn Fein rhetoric of equality, fairness and justice for everyone.
Q. You have already remarked about two of the major events during your year - the Easter 1916 commemorations and the Somme. Will you be attending events related to the Somme?
A. Well actually the main commemoration of the Somme will be in July of next year, so I will be out of office by then. But we are in a decade of centenaries. I haven't had any invitations to any Somme-related events at this point in time.
Q. But you must have given some thought to this as your year approached?
A. It has been a very busy two weeks and today is my first day and we are only a few hours into it. So I have not yet really finalised my thoughts about this or reached a conclusion but I totally respect all the centenaries and people's right to commemorate these events.
Q. In terms of the new councils, has Stormont treated local government fairly during this run-in year before the new councils replaced the previous 26?
A. It has been a very difficult time. There has been a lot of training and capacity-building being provided by Belfast City Council.
There was also the issue around the transfer of powers from Stormont and I think we did have some significant victories there particularly in getting the Executive to agree to the rates convergence scheme.
(Ministers eventually set aside £30m partly to ease the impact of rates changes.)
Of course the delay of a year in transferring the powers over urban regeneration was disappointing. We will not have those now for another year, but it is only a year and I think we will make good use of them when they do come.
So overall I would say the period of transition and the changes have gone fairly smoothly.
Q. Do you think it is right that the partnership panel set up between the 11 new councils and Stormont is chaired by a minister ? (Environment Minister Mark H Durkan whose portfolio includes local government). Should it not be co-chaired at least?
A. I don't really have a view on that, the most important thing I think it that all the voices on the partnership panel are heard and I think that is happening.
Q. So what are the main challenges for the new Belfast super-authority?
A. There is a big job of work to be done. We have been given a number of new responsibilities and it is up to the council to show that we can use those powers in a joined-up, effective and cost-efficient way so that we can build on the role of local government.
People will be looking to us to show that we can deliver but there will be a couple of years when the new functions and so on are bedding in.
I hope that will be successful so that we can approach the Assembly seeking additional powers in the future. It will take a few years before that will happen. But by then we will have proven we can do it.
The actual powers we would be seeking at that point in time would not be for me to say. But the more powers delivered by local councils, who have a stronger connection with their local communities, the better.
Q. The first debate at the new council was about a further extension of the Belfast boundaries to allow for an even larger council. Are you personally in favour of that ?
A. I don't know about that. The Boundary Commission has set and met and deliberated and decided on this particular issue for the time being. The majority of the parties on the council just now want to go forward and make progress together and do that in an effective and efficient way.