Hall of mirrors, the chamber that is a reflection of us all
Belfast City Council has seen some of the best theatre, the most incendiary debates, moments of humour, and acted as a safety valve for high emotions. By Malachi O'Doherty
Published 08/04/2013 | 09:00
The grandeur of Belfast City Hall belies the pettiness and venom of many of the debates that have echoed round its chambers.
It must strike tourists as an emblem of political power and maturity. It will look to them like an old seat of imperial authority. They may wonder what grave decisions were taken here about the structuring of society, the deployment of huge resources.
With its magnificent frontage, the lesser well informed passerby may imagine the carriages of kings and queens drawing up to discharge colourful and gawdy world leaders and statespeople to enter those hushed portals for whispered debates over lavish banquets.
It looks like the sort of place world affairs are hammered out in. Actually it is the drain into which our sectarian toxins flow.
And as for power? Well, there's the bins and the parks and cemeteries and not much more.
Belfast City Council has been the forum for some of the most outrageous and vitriolic squabbling and the real question is whether this has been good for us or bad.
It is good if it provides a platform which the outrage would not otherwise have. If letting the councillors vent their sectional passions against each other provides a safety valve that prevents the old intercommunal malice from tearing apart the Assembly and the Executive, then maybe it is better that the snarling is done in the city rather than on the hill.
But if the council is a bear pit that only encourages point scoring and if it is just a relic of bad politics, a place where the stale vapours linger to do no good for anyone, then perhaps a bunch of paid technocrats could run the city better without the bad odour of factionalism.
This is a question political journalists and councillors themselves return to every time another deadlock emerges, usually around issues more of symbolic importance than practical value.
Go back to 1972 and Paddy Wilson of the SDLP (who was later murdered by loyalists) is making that very point to reporters in Kelly's Cellars.
"Why do we need a council? Why do you have to declare your commitment to a community or a political ideology to get a chance at running the city? It's not as if the councillors are going to decide whether Ireland will be united or the country is to be run on socialist lines. They'll have nothing to do with it."
This is a paraphrasal from memory but the point was clear.
And still people campaign for the job of legislating for the city on the position they take on the Union, the border, a woman's right to choose, gay marriage. What have any of these things got to do with whether they can manage leisure services?
But the other side of the argument is that the council can be the nursery slope for political careers that will go further.
The history of the council is characterised by some fumbling and inarticulate people.
Remember George Seawright, (also murdered) who suggested an incinerator might be put to better use burning Catholics? Some of the stock mockery of the inarticulate cruelly missed the fact that political engagement was the only education some of our politicians had, and what a good education it had the potential to be.
The legendary moments include the councillor who celebrated the banning of the film of Joyce's Ulysses but couldn't pronounce it.
Another who, in a debate about nude bathing in leisure centres, announced that his wife had never seen him with all his clothes off. But some councillors went on to bigger political careers and brought the skills they had honed in council with them.
Sammy Wilson has all the mannerisms of a chamber debater who came up through a forum in which it was as important to be entertaining as to hit the point.
Some of those who went into the council chamber did so at personal risk. Sinn Fein councillors were attacked inside and outside the chamber by unionists who couldn't see that republican political activism in local government would become not an extension of armed struggle but an alternative to it.
Maskey was spat at.
One of the most energetically combative councillors was Rhonda Paisley, daughter of Big Ian, and for a time she and Sammy Wilson seemed a double act in their taunting of republicans. Hair spray was squirted by one councillor offering to decontaminate the chamber of 'political Aids'.
But there occasional acts of statesmanship. The mayor Herbie Ditty had refused to meet the mayor of Dublin but later John Carson led unionists and other councillors to the Mansion House to meet councillors there.
The period in which the majority would inevitably be held by unionists passed, first with the shock election of David Cook of Alliance as mayor.
Ratifying that post was difficult after unionists insisted on a recorded vote and Gerry Fitt of the SDLP filibustered to create time for latecomers to get in.
Unionists valued the post and wanted to retain it because, in those days, it was routinely rewarded with a knighthood.
The city hall itself has been a focal point for events bigger than local government concerns.
Rev Ian Paisley preached outside the city hall at lunchtimes on Fridays, bellowing his message of salvation at shoppers and office workers.
When Bill Clinton urged cheers for the peace process in 1995 under the Christmas tree, he was introduced by Eric Smyth of the DUP, treating it as an opportune moment to evangelise.
The council continues to provide us with theatre and the city hall to be a gathering point for protesters and preachers.
At times it shows us where our wounds fester and at times it seems to revert to frenzy and bitterness and ignorance. But it is a mirror of the society we have.