Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Gavin Robinson: Good times and some bad... all part of my time as mayor

Lord Mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson

"You know you're getting old when policemen look young – now it's the lord mayors."

That was a standard welcome throughout my year in office. I had served on Belfast City Council for a little over two years, yet the chance to lead and shape our capital, even at the tender age of 27, was one I relished.

There are limitations on what you can achieve. After all, it's a time-bound ceremonial and civic role. Yet, unhindered by the constraints of party politicking, you become a civic champion; an ambassador for your city.

At times of celebration – and, perhaps more importantly, at times of crisis – I became an individual people could look to and, with any luck, trust for guidance and leadership. The fortune of 2012-2013 graced me with a fair share of both.

Starting with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the arrival of the Olympic torch and the visit of the Queen, I shared in the jubilant celebration of a city inspired throughout the summer of 2012 – indeed, throughout the year.

A recurring theme was just how warm and welcoming a people we are.

In spite of our daily dose of cynicism, which we seemingly can't live without, we were even voted the happiest place in the UK.

It was great to welcome Olympic silver medallists Peter and Richard Chambers to City Hall and share in their success. Congratulations to them both for getting their call this week to take part in the World Cup regatta at Eton Dorney.

Our golden girl Dame Mary Peters was never too far from my side this year, either, representing the very best of Belfast. Mary is a worthy recipient of our Freedom, yet this city slicker had the unusual challenge of assisting to herd a flock of sheep down Donegall Place as part of the celebrations. Who said politics was dull?

In fact, I have an array of fantastic photos to remember my year. From abseils to novelty dress, there is a danger of picking up an unhelpful image.

I hadn't hoped to gain the distinguishing features of a Mexican bandit, but that's exactly how Peter Robinson introduced me to our party conference.

Growing a moustache for Movember was a novel attempt to highlight awareness and raise funds for prostate and testicular cancers and, while the image of my furry friend haunts me still, it was a worthy cause.

Supporting charities is an understated, but important part of the role. The Northern Ireland Children's Scanner Appeal captured people's hearts in the city and I was delighted to lend my support.

What better end to the year than to announce that we successfully met the £2m target and children will never again have to travel for – or, worse still, miss out on – a much-needed element of care.

I did, however, learn the truth that bad things come in threes. The flooding in significant parts of south and east Belfast, the city-centre bus lane reconfiguration and the council's vote on flying the Union flag individually brought strife for the city.

Yet, in their own way, they gave an opportunity to show just how responsive and supportive the council can be. I was impressed by the sincerity and effectiveness of a council that puts our people first.

I was surprised that no lord mayor had taken the opportunity to work in some of our council's jobs and, when the chance arose, I jumped at it.

You can superficially get an appreciation of what goes on behind closed doors, but hands-on experience gave me a unique insight into the challenges of making a city tick.

Having chaired council meetings, how hard can zoo keeping be? Days as a binman, zoo keeper, park ranger and a member of night time noise response will all be added to my CV as tough, yet necessary parts of city life.

As Mairtin O Muilleoir takes up office as lord mayor, I hope he not only finds the city in good shape, but recognises the need to represent the city as a whole.

He doesn't need my advice, but the best I can offer is to stretch yourself, enter the unknown and realise that different views, or alternative ways of life, are not only intriguing, they add the multicoloured strands to our rich cultural and historical tapestry.

If this year's – or even this week's – headlines have anything to tell us, it's that we have a long way to travel in building confidence and smashing barriers.

I've enjoyed my part in connecting the city. I hope others will follow suit.

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