Belfast Telegraph

Republican mayor's historic steps into loyalist heartland

By Lesley-Anne Henry

He entered the record books as Belfast's youngest ever Lord Mayor. And Niall O'Donnghaile has made history again by becoming the first-ever republican first citizen to visit the loyalist Shankill Road.

The 26-year-old, who marks his first week in office today said he was extremely "eager" to ensure a visit to Art Ability in the city's protestant heartland was top of his agenda.

"I haven't decided whether or not it is a hugely significant event or just another day," the new Mayor told the Belfast Telegraph.

"This sort of stuff goes on day and daily. Republican and loyalist communities are engaging all the time. And, I am happy to be able to shine a light on that work."

It had been rumoured that UDA boss Jackie McDonald would attend yesterday's event, but he failed to turn up.

In previous years Sinn Fein Lord Mayors, Alex Maskey and Tom Hartley were unable to venture onto the Shankill in an official capacity because of the unstable political climate and security fears.

Indeed, Mr Hartley, a long-standing councillor who donned the mayoral chain in 2008/09, said the closest he got was a visit to Townsend Presbyterian Church, which sits on the peaceline between the Lower Shankill and Lower Falls communities.

Yesterday however, there were no visible signs of opposition.

Mr O'Donnghaile added: "This was one of the first invitations that I received since becoming Mayor and I was really, really eager to do it. Art Ability is an excellent facility and I am really happy to be here.

"I have relatives with learning difficulties and I appreciate the support and respite that places like this give to families.

"I have listened to the concerns and will do all in my tenure as Mayor to give them a lift."

Also in attendance yesterday was Jim McVeigh, a republican ex-prisoner and councillor for lower Falls.

He said: "We are as much concerned about working class people in the Shankill and Newtownards Road areas as we are about those in the Short Strand, Whiterock and Ballymurphy.

"Some people are sceptical but we want to use this year to reach out to those people. Let people judge us by what we do."

It is understood the invitation had been sent by trade union SIPTU before the election.

But, Art Ability chairman Albert Hewitt, who works with loyalist ex-prisoners on the Shankill, said they had no qualms about welcoming a Sinn Fein man to the area. "It doesn't worry me the fact that he is Sinn Fein," he said. "The fact that he has come here and supported us and brought such publicity is fantastic.

"We didn't know who to turn to or where to go."

Funding for the centre, which provides respite for parents and young adults with disabilities, was stopped in March by the then Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey.

It caters for 48 young people aged between six and 16 as well as 24 adults. Manager Richard Long said they would need around £150,000 in the next three years to continue operating.

"We are a cross-community organisation and have children and adults from right across Belfast," he said. "If this place closes then there will be no respite for families and people with learning difficulties will have to stay in their own homes."

Meanwhile, SIPTU organiser Teri Cregan said: "There has been a blatant disregard for the impact that cutting services such as Art Ability has on parents who depend on the respite, but most importantly on the children and young adults that use the centre.

"Art Ability helps these users lead a much fuller life and it enables them to integrate more fully into their communities and interact much better with other users.

"The callous decision to cease this funding says a great deal about the lack of recognition of what centres, such as Art Ability, mean to local communities and how they help the most vulnerable in our society."

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