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Belfast's outgoing Sinn Fein mayor Mairtin O' Muilleoir: Life's a great journey of change and, thankfully, I've changed

Mairtin O Muilleoir shaves off his moustache to help raise money for Phillipines appeal day
Mairtin O Muilleoir shaves off his moustache to help raise money for Phillipines appeal day
Mairtin O Muilleoir becomes the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast to attend the Armistice Day commemorations at City Hall, joining the DUP's Christopher Stalford at the cenotaph
Chain of events: Mairtin O Muilleoir on his first day of office

Outgoing Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir talks to Rebecca Black about his year as first citizen and his hopes for the city of Belfast in tomorrow's world.

Q. What were the highs and lows of your year in office?

A. I don't think we really did lows, but I think there were many very positive highs.

Among those are the very moving moment where we lit up City Hall in the colours of Team Oscar. I only met wee Oscar (Knox) once this year because his health was never good enough but I thought that showed the great spirit and compassion of Belfast that a child and his parents could bring the city together.

The moments of unity are very important for the city. Not only was the sky lit up with lanterns but also the City Hall – the premier building in the city – was lit up in homage to wee Oscar. I am not an emotional person but I thought that was an emotional moment.

For me personally the moments that have meant the most to me were when people said to me, we appreciate what you are doing, we may not be from your political tradition but we want you to keep on what you are doing and it means a lot to us. That happened many times, thankfully.

Q. You are currently in New York. How many times have you travelled overseas and was it value for money for the city?

A. I pay my own way, the city paid my way once (on a trade mission to Silicon Valley), but I usually cover all my own costs. I covered my own cost to Boston in March, Washington DC, to Toronto, New Brunswick, New York.

The future for Belfast is as an outward-looking city, and the city needs to find a way – a value for-money-one of course, because not all Lord Mayors will be able to fund their own way – to accommodate the expense of having ambassadors outside the city because you can't be a successful global city without taking out your message. You can't hide your light under a bushel.

So one of the big lessons for me is that you have to market your city, you have to tell a different narrative and you can't do that from home.

Chain of events: Mairtin O Muilleoir on his first day of office
Chain of events: Mairtin O Muilleoir on his first day of office

I am more convinced of this than ever, that if you are not an outward-looking city you won't have a big future.

And something I have learned from travelling is that if you are not a diverse city, not an inclusive city, you are also doomed. The most exciting city I visited in my year was Toronto, it was also the city with the greatest Belfast connection.

Over 50% of the people of Toronto were not born in Canada, so I understand the atmosphere in which I am saying this, I reiterate nonetheless, Belfast has to have a reputation as a welcoming city, a tolerant city, a compassionate city in which all faiths and none are welcome. That's a lesson, that's not an argument or opinion.

We have a choice as a city, we can choose to be inward-looking and not diverse, a city in which those from other lands are not welcome, or we can choose to be like Toronto, New York, Stockholme and Paris. In that regard speaking from New York the Scots-Irish and Irish who came here had a tough time from the start because people did try to demonise them and ostracise them but they eventually found a welcome and made a massive contribution to America.

What I would say is that in 100 years' time when our great grandchildren look back on this they will say that the contribution the Poles, Muslims and Africans made was absolutely vital to the progress to Belfast.

Q. In light of that, what did you make of Peter Robinson's comments in defence of Pastor James McConnell?

A. I am not commenting on the First Minister's comments and haven't, but my comments have been throughout the year that we do live in each other's shelter and we have to respect one another.

I visited the Islamic Centre before I left for America because I think we need to move to the light in the city any time when statements are made which cause worry to our ethnic minorities. I think we need to move to reassure them that they are welcome and that we are grateful for their contribution. That's the same with the Poles who were subjected to dreadful racist attacks.

Q. In hindsight has Sinn Fein's bid to remove the Union flag from City Hall irrevocably damaged community relations?

A. I don't think so, but hindsight is a gift we all possess which is of relatively no use. My view of where we are is that if people move half way, if republicans move half way ordinary unionists will meet them there. That has been my experience all year. We have avoided fights over flags, the only flag in my parlour is the Filipino flag.

My feeling is that community relations are good, there is a great foundation but people need to see that you are willing to meet them half way. On Armistice Day we met unionist people half way, on the meeting of the Queen we met unionists half way and I think people come to you. That's my view of community relations and reconciliation, and that remains my priority in the few days left.

Q. How hard was it to become the First Sinn Fein Lord Mayor in Northern Ireland to attend a British Army event when you attended Armistice Day and was it hard to sell that to the more hardline supporters of your party?

A. I don't really do hard line/soft line, I think Sinn Fein support for the initiative around Armistice Day was 100%. There was a motion passed at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis endorsing my work this year and this initiative around Armistice Day and many of my other initiatives around peace-building. My experience is that the Sinn Fein part of the republican community are up for the challenges.

If you remember back to the night I was elected on June 3 last year, I said that this would be a year of challenges more for republicans than for unionists, and the republican response was 'ok, well let's get on with it and see what we can do'. I think the republican community has been magnificent in its support for me and I have been really grateful for that.

Without the support of the republican community I could not do any of the work I have did, such as bringing in a portrait of the Orange Order to the parlour, meeting and inviting in people from Twaddell even thought they didn't accept my invitation, making the Somme Association one of my charities and so on. I am humbled by the support of the republican community for the work I have tried to do this year.

Q. Do you still plan to visit the Somme battlefields?

A. I do, our dates just didn't work. We want to do that, my predecessor Tom Hartley did a lot of work in this area around respect for the dead of the First World War and I do believe it is a personal pilgrimage that those of us who are able to make the journey should do so. I was delighted to join the Somme Association in the Somme museum to launch their funding appeal for 2016, and I intend to make that journey before 2016.

Q. Is there anything you think unionists could do to reciprocate your gestures?

A. No, none of the gestures were taken on the basis that there should be reciprocity or there should be any type of response. We travel in hope but it is up to unionism to I think decide their own pace and their approach to these matters.

But for me, any steps we took was to heal the wounds in the city to try and bring our people together. I have no doubt that the vast majority of people in Belfast want that to continue.

Q. You described City Hall in the 1980s as a "bearpit of bigotry", obviously it has now changed hugely, but do you think you have changed too since last time you were a councillor?

A. Well thank goodness, I have changed from yesterday, life is a wonderful journey of change and growing. If you don't change you die so I encourage people to explore change and enjoy change.

This has been a learning year so I am open to learning. One of the great revelations of this year was finding out what the faith communities of Belfast do. I was wholly blind to that, and also to the great work the minority faiths do, like Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists and so on.

I have a privilege that no one else in this city has, I have been invited to more events, places, institutions and places of worship than anyone else and that is part of the great honour of the job.

Part of that is that I have been blown away by the work that the faith communities do with those at the bottom of the ladder – the homeless, the sick, the poor, broken families. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to find that out because there is much more life-changing work going on in Belfast than I could ever have imagined.

Q. How does it feel knowing your portrait will join the Lord Mayors' portraits on the first floor corridor of City Hall which you once described as a "unionist house of horrors which would have done the old Barry's amusements arcade in Bangor proud"?

A. City Hall is today a changed place, it is a people's hall, that's not my doing. We have the greatest management team in the country in terms of the leadership in the council, in terms of the officers. They have transformed City Hall. It is because the war is over, they have transformed City Hall from a place that was closed for all sorts of reasons to a place that is absolutely open.

I am pleased with that, when I first went into City Hall (1985) it was a time of great hurt for people right across the city, a time of death and suffering.

Today we need to make it a place of reconciliation, healing and economic revival. It will be a nice honour to have my portrait there, but just wait until you see it.

Q. Do you notice a difference in the perception of Belfast and Northern Ireland overseas?

A. Absolutely, we will be bringing a different message and that new narrative is being understood. Peace gives us the opportunity to tell a new story and I think it is being understood that there is a new dawn in Belfast and people want to be part of that.

Q. You have a reputation as a fairly independently minded Shinner, is that fair?

A. I think all members of Sinn Fein are independently minded so if it applies to everyone else you can apply it to me as well.

Q. How did you get involved in politics?

A. I am always reluctant to dwell on the past but Bloody Sunday, even though I was just 12, made a life-changing impact on me.

You think surely as a 12-year-old it couldn't but it did, and internment in 1971 as an 11-year-old. I say that in the knowledge of how a young a person can be affected by massive events in their life, so we need to be careful.

If we vow not to go back to where we were, we should be aware of how fragile people are and their experiences. As young as I was I remember being really impacted by internment and Bloody Sunday.

But one of the things I heard at a Quaker meeting house was that the past belongs to us, we don't belong to the past.

I am happy to talk about the past but we need to focus on the future.

Q. How did it feel to top the poll in the Balmoral Ward, increasing your vote significantly?

A. We got it by one vote so I won't get carried away, but I was pleased to take votes from right across the constituency and I received some personal messages from people who are not by any means typical Sinn Fein. What I have said to those people is that that is a big obligation on me and I am keen to live up to it.

To move from one community camp to elect me is a big vote of trust and I intend to live up to that and deliver.

Q. Have you any regrets from your year in office?

A. No, I don't do regrets, I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to do this job. Not finished yet, still a busy couple of days in New York, going to launch a compassionate charter from Belfast on Monday with the chaplains. We will play until the final whistle.

Q. So what do you have planned for the future?

A. I hope to take a bit of a holiday, but there are a lot of things to be done. I want to really develop the Boston-Belfast sister city agreement. All of council has endorsed that which is great. I want to really build Belfast towards 2020. That's a vital year for Belfast, the most important year in the history of Belfast. Not everyone gets to be first citizen but there is work to do for everyone.

I am ambitious for Belfast, we need to push ourselves and need to be relentlessly positive about the city so I am going to continue doing that. It's a privilege to serve but when it is over, it is over. I don't want to ever be described as a former Lord Mayor, I want to be ahead of events. There is plenty to do and I intend to get stuck in.

Q. Any plans to run for Westminster next year or Stormont in 2016?

A. No, no plans at all to run for Westminster or Assembly. I have just been returned to council so my plans are to get stuck in and see what the opportunities are. It's a super council so lets make it a super council.

Q. Any advice for the next Lord Mayor, SDLP woman Nichola Mallon, and deputy Alliance councillor Maire Hendron?

A. I left the country for seven hours and women took over the city! I wish Nichola and Maire both well, I am confident they can meet any of the challenges and for the first time in 400 years we have a woman Chief Executive, the excellent Suzanne Wylie, a woman Mayor and a woman Deputy Mayor. What a great message from a great city.

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