Sinn Fein man is Belfast's youngest Mayor
Belfast's youngest Lord Mayor has been elected.
Twenty-five-year-old councillor Niall O’Donnghaile became First Citizen of the city last night — just three weeks after he was elected onto the council.
However, the rapid ascent of the Sinn Fein politician has raised questions over whether he is too inexperienced to take such an important role.
Some unionists have branded his election as a publicity stunt by Sinn Fein.
The former Sinn Fein Press officer from the Short Strand, a nationalist enclave in east Belfast, said he hopes to “reach out” to the younger population who feel disenfranchised over the next 12 months.
“I don’t presume to know it all, but I certainly think I’m up to the job,” he said.
“I think it’s a new dimension to the council to have a younger person in this particular position.
“Look at how many young people we have in the city of Belfast.
“I am determined to be something different this year as Lord Mayor.
“I am determined to bring a fresh approach, and hopefully a youthful approach, to this year.
“I am more than up for the challenge.”
His controversial appointment is said to have ruffled feathers in republican circles, with long-standing councillors like Danny Lavery — who was deputy Lord Mayor in 2009 — and Gerard O’Neill being overlooked.
It has also, unsurprisingly, raised eyebrows from the unionist camp in the divided chamber.
“I have overcoats in the wardrobe that are older,” quipped PUP representative Hugh Smyth, who has 38 years’ experience as a councillor.
“I am all for new blood coming in, but you have to serve your time as a councillor before being made Lord Mayor. He didn’t even know where the men’s toilets were in City Hall.
“It was 20 years before I was considered for the mayoralty.”
Mr O’Donnghaile is among a string of young members elected to Belfast City Council this year, including 19-year-old Guy Spence (DUP), Colin Keenan (26), of the SDLP, Gavin Robinson (26), and Adam Newton (26), both of the DUP.
“I am all for younger people in politics but there are serious questions over councillor O’Donnghaile’s lack of experience,” said the DUP’s Christopher Stalford (28), who was first elected at 22.
“He will have to prove himself in post and obviously there will be concerns that someone with so little experience has been elevated so quickly.
“It raises the question about the capacity of Sinn Fein in Belfast — do they have so little confidence in their long-standing members that they have to turn to the new kid on the block?”
Veteran UUP man Jim Rodgers, who was twice Lord Mayor, in 2001 and 2007, described the election as a publicity stunt.
“I think part of it is that Sinn Fein are trying to command all the headlines,” he said.
“I can foresee all sorts of problems, but I wish him well.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult year for him, not just chairing the council but also being First Citizen.
“You need to know what a public representative is all about.
“And, even though he has served behind the scenes up at the Northern Ireland Assembly, you really need to have those years as a councillor behind you.
“You cannot talk about your experiences if you don’t have any.”
The post of deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast went to Ruth Patterson of the DUP, which is the second largest party in the chamber.
At a special meeting convened earlier this week a row broke out between the DUP and Sinn Fein over changing rules on how top positions are allocated.
The DUP is expected to take the mayoral chain next year.
- Niall O’Donnghaile was elected to Pottinger ward on May 5, 2011
- A University of Ulster politics graduate, he has been Sinn Fein’s director of communications at the Assembly for 3 years
- Joined Ógra Shinn Féin aged 16. From the Short Strand, Belfast, was at forefront of campaign to close Mountpottinger PSNI station
- Educated in Irish language, has campaigned for Irish Language Act and is on board of An Droichead Teo, south and east Belfast’s Irish Language and Cultural initiative centre
- Board member, Short Strand Partnership, member, Belfast National Graves Committee and Sinn Fein’s internal housing advisory group
- A keen GAA fan, he supports the Down football team
- Polled 1,030 votes in Assembly elections in the mainly unionist constituency, where the DUP’s Peter Robinson topped the poll