Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Nuala McKeever: Why Sinn Fein Mayor Niall O’Donnghaile is just what is needed now to go forward

Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile
Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile

It's funny when a comment that's supposed to be insulting, turns out to be a compliment. Last week the chambers of the the City Hall in Belfast echoed with the grumpy remarks of some councillors about the fact that the new Lord Mayor, Niall O'Donnghaile, is a youngster with no experience of how this place works.

Brilliant! We've finally got a leader who's possibly not carrying around excess baggage from decades of whataboutery. What could be better?

The new mayor is young but not inexperienced. His background's in press and communications and he seems to know what he's doing when it comes to giving soundbites to the media.

He has embraced the whole of the city in his initial statement, declaring himself to be a mayor for all seasonings. He followed up the grand words with actions, visiting an arts project on the Shankill — the first Sinn Fein mayor to go into the heart of loyalism like that.

His behaviour was in sharp contrast to that of the new DUP deputy mayor, Ruth Patterson. No cheesy election-poster grins from her when he tried to shake her hand. A couple of days later she pouted that she still hadn't decided whether or not she was going to speak to him.

Who's the big child in all of this?

Mr O'Donnghaile might just have what it takes to encourage other young people to see politics and citizenship and life itself as something that is there for them to avail of.

Older, more experienced politicos talk yards about the need to involve young people, the need to reach out, the need to give them a voice.

But what they can't seem to stomach is when the young people decide to speak for themselves rather than wait to be “given” a voice.

I was at a conference last week on sectarianism and racism. The two most engaging speakers were 32-years-old and 16-years-old. The 16-year-old in particular completely debunked the myth that young people don't know what they want. He didn't speak on our terms, the oldies. He used his own language. And while I didn't like everything he said, I was very impressed at how he said it.

Niall O'Donnghaile's year in office is a fantastic opportunity for Belfast to tackle in a meaningful way the problem of suicide among young people. He has spoken already about his desire to work in this area to give young people a sense of hope and optimism that life is worth living.

Shame on the old fogies who profess a desire to change but are immediately threatened by any change they didn't plan themselves.

As one of the older members of our society (it's hard to write that sentence) I have to concede that my generation aren't the bright young things any more. We may not like what younger generations do or how they talk or the music they love or the hairstyles they wear but we've had our day in the sun.

Our job now is to use our experience to guide those coming behind us. The worst thing we could do is use it to block their progress. There are those who still see a baton as a weapon. Thankfully, others see it as something to be handed on.

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