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Charity ball flags up the good hearts of our council leaders

By Claire Harrison

We're a funny lot in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, we portray a negative image to the world of a country of people who can't get on, can't agree over a flag and can't leave commuters or Christmas shoppers alone without trying to car bomb them.

And then there's the other perception that we're endlessly generous (look at the response to the Philippines disaster when we donated significantly more than much bigger countries) and we're known far and wide for our friendly disposition.

I saw the overwhelming generosity of spirit we're deservedly known for at the MS Society's 60th anniversary gala ball which was held recently in the grand surroundings of Belfast City Hall. Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological condition which has particularly high levels in Northern Ireland, indeed we're among the highest in the world. To be blunt, it can be a horrific condition and sends devastating ripples out among many families affected.

I know this because my mother-in-law Margaret died three years ago after a long and stoic battle against its debilitating symptoms. Despite its terrible impact, I never once heard Margaret complain or lose her great sense of humour (another characteristic we're known for here in Northern Ireland).

The ball, coincidentally, was held on the eve of Margaret's anniversary so she was firmly in our thoughts as we listened to the Society, a charity which was good to her, rightly blow its own trumpet about its work over six decades. There was a serious, emotional point to the evening but it was also a lively and fun event which saw guests compete to dig deep into their pockets.

City Hall is a fabulous venue for a black tie do and it was great to see the whole facade lit in the charity's distinctive orange branding in honour of the evening. The landmark event was hosted there on invitation from this year's High Sheriff Brian Kingston, who had nominated the Society as one of his chosen charities. With Brian being a well-known Orangeman, the colour theme of the evening was ripe for the gag factor, which he took in great humour. Our entertaining compere, UTV journalist Peter Cardwell, got a rousing cheer when he suggested flying an Orange flag from the front of City Hall 365 days a year – in honour of the MS Society.

He then gave way to his colleague Frank Mitchell who did a fine job of squeezing cash out of guests during an auction. It was an awesome sight watching the bidding go up and up knowing every penny was counting towards the fight against MS and many lots were going for hundreds more than their worth. Special mention to Jim Wells MLA who coughed up £550 for a weekend in Barcelona.

When we get embroiled in rows over flags and the like, it's sometimes easy to forget that behind the scenes, civic life keeps going at City Hall.

While councillors' antics under the Dome of Delight may be hogging the headlines, the likes of the High Sheriff and the Lord Mayor are, completely regardless of political affiliations, opening the doors of this stunning building to celebrate charities and community groups that are part of the fabric of this city. They are organisations which make a genuine difference to the lives of citizens and whose work deserves to be heralded in such grand surroundings.

You can't eat a flag. You can't use it to cure a disease either. But regardless of how many days it flies on Belfast City Hall, you can be assured there's still plenty of worthy work going on underneath the copper dome.

'It's easy to forget that behind the scenes, civic life keeps going at City Hall'

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