Belfast Telegraph

How the cold house has thawed out for Sinn Fein

Veteran republican councillor Fra McCann has seen many changes in 23 years at City Hall, he tells Brian Rowan

It was 1987 and Fra McCann's arrival at Belfast City Hall after a council by-election was in the political era of 'Ulster Says No' and 'Smash Sinn Fein'.

The news and headlines at the time were about the IRA Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen; the slaughter at the cenotaph on a Sunday in November.

That day is still remembered for its dead and injured and for the forgiving words of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter, Marie, was killed.

This was also the era of 'the Armalite and the ballot box' - the phrase that defined the republican dual-strategy of armed struggle and politics.

McCann was from an IRA background, had been part of the jail protests in the 1970s and was now stepping into a new place - into the City Hall.

"It was one of the most intimidating arenas that I'd entered," he recalls - a place where "you always had to be on your guard. You were going into a place that was a bastion of unionism."

And, back then, unionists played a kind of hide-and-seek politics with Sinn Fein. "Every time you went to a meeting you walked into a room that was empty," the now-Stormont MLA said. "The unionists had switched rooms . . . you had to force doors open to get into meetings.

"It was verbally abusive across the table . . . you were open to all sorts of sectarian abuse and a lot of personal abuse."

I remember reporting that period inside the City Hall - a time of confrontation and turmoil.

It was raw. Unionists made no distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA. They saw this as the enemy in the City Hall.

But, two decades later, as Fra McCann prepares to leave the City Hall as part of Sinn Fein's position on double-jobbing, that political world has changed and is changing.

Alec Maskey and Tom Hartley have both been Lord Mayor and Jim McVeigh, who is replacing McCann on the council, was the last IRA jail leader - 'officer commanding' - in the Maze.

"As things moved on, I think there was a realisation within many unionists that the City Hall needed to work," McCann said.

Today, the numbers game is very different. From a position of having just one councillor in 1983, Sinn Fein has grown to be the largest party in the City Hall.

And, in a wider frame, the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing politics at Stormont, have changed the context.

But he knows it is not just about representing your own people.

"You can shout your own corner locally," he says, "but we also need to shout for Belfast."

He talks about positive things in his time at the City Hall: better leisure facilities on the Falls and at the Grove; the Tall Ships visiting the city; plans to stage the World Police and Fire Games and world championships in rugby and Irish dancing.

It is a long way from that hothouse, or cold house, of the 1980s.

In this interview, Fra McCann told a story of how unionists used to leave the rooms and chamber of the City Hall when Sinn Fein members entered.

Indeed, he admitted that, on occasion, he would have sat among them, knowing that his presence would mean he would get the room to himself.

When I interviewed him at Stormont recently over a coffee, unionists sat at neighbouring tables and when I had finished speaking to the Sinn Fein politician, a long-time City Hall unionist councillor and former Lord Mayor joined us.

They don't - and won't - agree on everything, but they are talking to each other, not at each other - just one example of how things have changed on a journey that spans a little over 20 years.

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