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Never a dull moment in Belfast's infamous 'Dome of Delight'

The city council, which is soon to vanish from the political map, has often mirrored society's sectarian divisions, but in retrospect some of the antics verged on the comical. Ivan Little revisits 40 years of the 'Crucible of Conflict'

They used to call it the "Dome of Delight", but they could just as easily have dubbed Belfast City Hall the "Chamber of Horrors", or the "Hub of Hate", or the "Crucible of Conflict".

And that was long before the Union flag row in 2012 catapulted Belfast City Council into the eye of one of the worst-ever storms in its turbulent history.

For years, the magnificently appointed debating chamber just off the first-floor rotunda at the top of the City Hall's grand staircase was shown off by guides in all its architectural splendour, by day, to tourists who weren't informed that, by night, it had regularly turned into a green - and orange - house of bigotry and division.

Looking back on the eve of Belfast's local authority merging into a so-called 'super-council' with Lisburn and Castlereagh, it's hard to believe what passed for politics in the City Hall during the Troubles, as the only sense of agreement between unionists, nationalists, loyalists and republicans was a mutual distrust and enmity.

You name it, it happened. There were punch-ups, sit-ins, walk-outs, throw-outs by the police, death threats, bomb scares, flak jackets, court cases and even the deployment of toy trumpets and whistles to drown out rival speakers.

With the passage of time, memories have dimmed, but reports of some of what went on (and what went off) in that mayhem in the heart of Belfast confirm that it wasn't a dream.

More a nightmare - though some of the disputes and tactics were so bizarre, so infantile that they're almost comical in retrospect, though they were often anything but funny at the time.

For journalists, the council markings were invariably a sure-fire certainty for producing a story, even if was a long sit and the location of the Press benches slap-bang in the middle of the warring factions could feel like a perilous no-man's-land in the midst of the insanity.

From the earliest days, when Belfast was a city with a huge unionist majority, their council representatives had the run of the City Hall, which some observers likened to an Orange Hall without the banners and the bands.

It wasn't exactly "croppies lie down", but one observer said of nationalists at the time: "They were expected to know their place. The City Hall was filled with the symbols of unionism and statues of their great and their good amid a short-sighted belief that the Prods would always have their own way."

The Ulster Unionist Party had ruled this particular roost for over a century until the DUP became a major force in the politics of the Union and, on the other side, Sinn Fein started to challenge the SDLP as a voice of nationalism and to challenge the unionist domination.

Change was inevitable. But equally inevitable was the resistance to it in some quarters, especially when the Troubles were at their worst.

"We were trying to hold back the tide," says one former unionist politician. "But we were soon to be engulfed."

One of Sinn Fein's most influential figures, Mairtin O Muilleoir, was an articulate and media-savvy politician who took his first tentative steps into local government in November 1987, but was promptly marched out of the City Hall by police even before he'd finished his first sentence as a new councillor.

His problem wasn't what he said, but the way that he said it - in Irish - which was seen by councillors across the chamber as a political weapon designed to attack the Union.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson was furious. He called on the unionist Lord Mayor, Dixie Gilmore, to discipline O Muilleoir, who was also ridiculed for using his Irish name rather than the English version of it: Martin Millar.

Wilson said that Irish was a "leprechaun language" and Gilmore summoned the RUC to 'escort' O Muilleoir out of the chamber for disruptive behaviour.

Neither he nor his evictors could have imagined that, 30 years later, the Sinn Fein councillor would be walking back in as Belfast's Lord Mayor, promising to unite the city and even attending Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph.

Yet Sinn Fein had initially been reluctant recruits to the council. In 1981, they surprised some of their own supporters with their failure to capitalise on the electoral success of hunger striker Bobby Sands by refusing to put up candidates to run for seats on Belfast City Council, though other republicans stood and were voted in.

Two years later, former boxer Alex Maskey won a by-election to became the first Sinn Fein councillor in more than 60 years to take a seat in the City Hall and, by 1985, his party were the biggest nationalist grouping, with seven councillors compared to the SDLP's six members.

Sammy Wilson described the Sinn Feiners as "evil gunmen who had crawled out of west Belfast" and he vowed to ostracise them.

The daughter of DUP leader Ian Paisley had her own way of trying to silence the Sinn Fein councillors as they tried to speak: she blew her own trumpet. A toy trumpet.

Others sounded rape alarms and thumped their desks. Other thumpings were of a more personal in-your-face nature, with sometimes unexpected assailants and victims.

The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 had temperatures rocketing and relationships plummeting.

More than 200,000 unionists attended Ian Paisley's Never, Never Never rally outside the City Hall and council meetings were suspended, or adjourned, while a massive Belfast Says No banner was hung over the City Hall dome.

Legal hearings in the High Court just down Chichester Street became two-a-penny as judicial reviews were sought of contentious rulings.

It took years, but eventually a thaw set in, accelerated by the 1994 ceasefires by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, but it was also significant that the loss of the unionist majority on the council in 1997 led to even more sharing of the spoils of power in the City Hall and the lifting of restrictions on republicans gaining access to the city centre for their marches and rallies.

In 2002, the first Sinn Fein Mayor, Alex Maskey, was elected and as well as St Patrick's Days' parades and concerts; gay people were allowed to strut their colourful stuff in the annual Belfast Pride carnival.

In 2005, the City Hall - for so long the bedrock of puritanical values and beliefs - played host to the UK's first civil partnership ceremony - in spite of a protest from evangelical Christians.

The old certainties were going just like the locks that used to stop the swings swinging in Belfast's playgrounds on Sundays.

And even some longer-in-the-tooth DUP stalwarts were wrong-footed by the sure-footed approach of their new Lord Mayor in 2012: Gavin Robinson, who attended a Gay Pride event and launched the Feile an Phobail festival which had for years been a target for unionist venom.

Nothing, however, prepared the unionists for their biggest shock - the council's decision, in December 2012, to restrict the flying of the Union flag on the City Hall to designated days, like royal birthdays.

The move was actually proposed as a compromise by the Alliance Party, who had long held the balance of power in the City Hall. They came up with the designated days idea as an alternative to nationalist plans to stop the flying of the flag altogether.

But, even so, the vote sparked vicious rioting, which resulted in hundreds of injuries and repeated attacks on Alliance and their offices, even outside Belfast.

One commentator pointed out the irony that, in a roundabout way, the vote meant that Sinn Fein had actually voted for the flag to pay tribute to the Queen and her family. Two years on, protests are still held every Saturday, albeit with only a small number of loyalists taking part.

Mairtin O Muilleoir, who is now an MLA, says he misses the council and has surprisingly fond memories of the chamber - even from what he calls his early "dark years", when he wore a flak jacket to meetings and tried to vary his route to the only entrance at the back of to the City Hall.

"But it wasn't just Sinn Fein councillors who were in danger. All the politicians were taking precautions," says O Muilleior.

A number of councillors were killed by terrorists, but O Muilleoir, who was attacked by loyalists during a mayoral visit to Woodvale Park, says the council is unrecognisable from the old days in a city which is "like a different planet" from years gone by, when there had been a total breakdown in relations because of the violence from paramilitaries on both sides.

"Without wishing to whitewash the past, or looking through rose-tinted spectacles, I think that, at the end of its days, it has to be said that the council has done a good job in more recent times showing leadership."

O Muilleoir, who had quit the City Hall in 1997 to concentrate on establishing a media empire, returned there in 2011 and he has revealed he had never been in the Lord Mayor's parlour before he donned the mayoral chain in 2013.

Unionist Jim Rodgers, who served two terms as Lord Mayor, has seen the make-up of the council change dramatically in his 22 years in the City Hall. And his party have seen their position as the leading unionist party severely eroded.

He rues what he acknowledges were the sectarianism, the hatred and the bigotry of the worst years of the council, adding: "I can remember people throwing stuff from the public gallery at councillors on both sides, because they didn't agree with what was being said. And I recall the police waiting at reception in case they were required.

"There are still arguments, but fortunately no one has lifted their hands."

Rodgers says the Provisional IRA's ceasefire of 1994 was the catalyst for an easing of tensions - even after Sinn Fein started putting former prisoners like Jim McVeigh up for election to the council.

"People were realising that life was short and that we couldn't go on the way we were going. The ceasefires clearly helped things considerably - even though some folk weren't sure they were going to last and there were breaches.But, overall, there was a vast improvement in the feelings as it looked as if the ceasefire was going to hold."

However, Rodgers has revealed that there were times in bleaker days in the mid-1990s that he thought of resigning from the council.

"I asked myself more than once what I had lef myself in for. I talked with friends and family who urged me to hang in there. And I'm glad they did."

Rodgers was deputy Lord Mayor to Belfast's first Catholic First Citizen, Alban Maginness of the SDLP.

And he says: "Politically, we didn't share each other's views, but we put politics on the back-burner to work closely together in the interests of all the citizens of Belfast."

He's proud of his own achievements as Lord Mayor, when he adopted the themes "Bringing People Together" and "One Belfast".

Rodgers is part of the new Belfast super-council, which will have 60 members compared to the 51 on the soon-to-vanish council.

Alban Maginness has departed, but in a farewell message he wrote of how his move into the Mayor's parlour had been a groundbreaker.

"The political mould was definitely broken on that sultry evening in June [1997]. The unionist monopoly on political power was well and truly broken that memorable day. The politics of the City Hall were changed forever and happily now community partnership is the order of the day," said Maginness, who described the partnership as the council's greatest achievement in the last 25 years.

Just how the new super-council will shape up in the year 2040 is a question on which even the shrewdest political analysts are reserving judgment.

From brawls and falls to turtles and spankings...

  • Scots-born councillor George Seawright ended up in court for claiming that nationalists who didn’t stand for the national anthem at a school concert should be incinerated. Seawright was kicked out by the DUP, but was jailed for nine months for attacking Secretary of State Tom King during a visit to City Hall. Seawright was later shot dead by republicans
  •  Cormac Boomer of the SDLP lived up to his name by punching a People’s Democracy councillor, Fergus O’Hare, during a row in September 1984. When unionist John Carson tried to separate the two men, he ended up slipping and falling on his back
  • The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned Belfast City Council into a laughing stock when some councillors wanted them to turn on Belfast’s Christmas tree lights in 1985, though Bill Clinton eventually won the day and did the honours
  • Former unionist Lord Mayor Tommy Patton was the master of the malapropism. He once said the police were no detergent for the IRA and, at a reception for a visiting team at Windsor Park, an Albanian interpreter who had been enthusiastically translating all the official speeches simply shrugged his shoulders and gave up after the Lord Mayor started to speak
  • A naturist society was once banned from using a Belfast City Council swimming pool, because it was said that it was contrary to God’s law. One councillor said he had never seen his wife naked in 30 years of marriage
  • Former unionist deputy Lord Mayor Frank Millar, who was once fined £100 for calling Cliftonville football supporters “republican b*******”, was also fined £50 for punching the DUP’s Sammy Wilson and criticised for calling Nelson Mandela “a black Provo”
  • In 1988, rival councillors were involved in a fight which involved fists, heads and even knees in groins. The RUC took statements from a large number of complainants, but no charges were ever brought
  • Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile sparked a major row in 2011 after he refused to present a Duke of Edinburgh’s award to a 14-year-old girl after discovering she was a member of the Army cadet force
  • Belfast councillors were regularly accused of being junket junkies, criss-crossing the world on “fact-finding” missions. In one year in the early 1990s, there were 88 such trips outside Northern Ireland
  • Two Belfast councillors were caught up in a spanking row in 1995. Independent Sandy Blair and Jim “Junior” Walker of the DUP were photographed being “disciplined” by a scantily-clad waitress at the opening of a new restaurant called School Dinners. Walker received the ultimate punishment of being expelled from his party

Belfast Telegraph


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