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15 May 1997 Edition

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The fight for change in City Hall

Belfast City Councillors Tom Hartley and Mairtín O Muilleoir chart the rise of Sinn Féin in Belfast City Hall and their successes in moving a notorious sectarian council towards fairness and equality


In the local government elections on 21 May, Sinn Féin aims to strengthen its position as the second largest party on Belfast City Council. The party is campaigning hard with its political message on the peace process and its demand for equality for Belfast nationalists in face of the history of a discriminatory unionist-dominated city council.

An Phoblacht was speaking to Hartley and retiring councillor Mairtín O Muilleoir about the party's council agenda and Sinn Féin's historical role in providing strong leadership and representation for Belfast nationalists.

``The election of Alex Maskey for Sinn Féin in 1983 heralded the arrival of the assertive nationalist representation which is a byword for Sinn Féin today,'' Hartley said as he described the importance of this early victory for the party.

``By claiming the political rights of nationalists in this city Alex led the way for Sinn Féin's entry into electoral politics in this era, and a special word of thanks from the party is due. He was very capable in dealing with the difficult circumstances he found here at that time, and that's to be seen in the fact that today we have 10 Sinn Fein city councillors.''

Alex Maskey has been shot and wounded by loyalists and on 1 May 1994 Alan Lundy, a party worker, was shot dead in Maskey's home. Eighteen people connected to the party have been killed, ``the most intense and sustained assault on a particular political grouping,'' said Hartley. Many unionists fail to condemn these attacks, and in some cases, condone them.
     
  Sinn Féin get results. Before we went into the City Hall, many nationalist representatives accepted playing second-fiddle to unionists. We achieved the nationalist right to equality. No-one challenged the right of nationalists to equal representation within the council, or the unionist abuses of resources, unionist discrimination against nationalist areas, or the junketeering, or challenged the denial of parity of esteem for our tradition and our culture. We fought for equal rights on all those fronts.  

Hartley emphasises the quality representation nationalist residents now receive. ``Our first priority is to offer the best representation to the electorate. In the last council elections, we got more first preference votes than any other party in Belfast. We are acknowledged to have the best constitutency service of any party in the city.

``The group inside the council has a fairly heavy workload, and all our councillors are attached to an advice centre to carry out a range of constituency work. They also have a political role as they occupy key positions in the party structure.

``Our councillors have been very active in trying to secure jobs for the most deprived areas, and also very much involved in health and environmental issues, and fought very hard against the cuts in the leisure and cleansing services, presently going on.

This theme of Sinn Féin as the party of change in City Hall, pushing hard for a nationalist agenda of basic equality, is encapsulated by Mairtin O'Muilleoir, a Sinn Féin councillor since 1987. His high profile campaigns on Unionist junkets - when councillors blithely went on freebies against a backdrop of council cutbacks and redundancies - and employment discrimination helped force Unionist councillors to think in terms of partnership, not domination, at council level.

O'Muilleoir is certain of the validity of the Sinn Fein ticket. ``You would put Sinn Féin back into City Hall because Sinn Féin get results. Before we went into the City Hall, many nationalist representatives accepted playing second-fiddle to unionists. We achieved the nationalist right to equality. No-one challenged the right of nationalists to equal representation within the council, or the unionist abuses of resources, unionist discrimination against nationalist areas, or the junketeering, or challenged the denial of parity of esteem for our tradition and our culture. We fought for equal rights on all those fronts.''

O'Muilleoir believes that Sinn Féin involvement resulted in a more equitable distribution of council resources. ``The Josie Quigley case in 1987 was a big breakthrough. (Quigley challenged the unionists in the courts over their refusal to fund a children's park in Ballymurphy). After that every unionist knew that if they were going to discriminate they had to go into court and deny it. And every time we took them on in court, we won. Our approach was based on what Pat Finucane said, `Our duty was to discharge our responsibilities as elected representatives and no-one is allowed to prevent us.' We drove a bus through their barricade of bigotry. Today parties are represented proportionately on all committees, as fair a system as you will get anywhere in the world. That was a direct result of the court cases.

``Recently the Unionists proposed that council delegations be all-party. They realise if the city is to progress, it has to be on the basis of partnership. There are issues like the economy, poverty, transport and EC funding, where there can be a united council view for the greater good of the citizens.

``When I went on to the council in 1987, the IDB/LEDU refused to even talk to us about anything. They operated a policy of `no contact' with Sinn Fein. We had councillors on the Economic Development Committee, but the IDB would not talk to us. That exclusionary policy is in smithereens now.''

O'Muilleoir remains pessimistic about continued unionist council abuses. ``I wouldn't be optimistic that you won't have to use the legal system to stop some of the worst unionist excesses. After the election, they are going to attack the leisure centres and resources in our areas. They have a long vendetta against the Whiterock Leisure Centre and Falls Baths. When the council has spent £32m on the Waterfront Hall, and is spending £9m on the Gasworks site, it's time we had a similar financial commitment to prestigious projects in nationalist areas of Belfast.''
  Our approach was based on what Pat Finucane said, `Our duty was to discharge our responsibilities as elected representatives and no-one is allowed to prevent us.' We drove a bus through their barricade of bigotry. Today parties are represented proportionately on all committees, as fair a system as you will get anywhere in the world.
 

O'Muilleoir, though leaving council politics at this election, is aware of the unfinished business that remains, ``We still haven't won parity of esteem. We are pleased that they have agreed to put a Famine window up, to commemorate the victims of An Gorta Mór. Sinn Féin also needs more representation on outside boards, and needs to be allocated chair and deputy-chair positions in the council, and of course Mayor and Deputy-Mayor. Irish is still officially banned, Irish street names are still effectively illegal, as the council still hasn't put one up since the law changed in 1984, and yet they are legally obliged to do so. You still have £4m spent every year in unionist areas on parks, and only £400,000 in nationalist areas. Blatantly, you saw the unionist push to close leisure centres in nationalist areas only. It is the case, then, that some unionist councillors persist in trying to `run the show', regardless of fair employment findings or recommendations.''

However, O'Muilleoir can point to ample evidence of improvement for the nationalist presence in the city, in the recognition being given to an increasingly confident Irish cultural presence. ``At my first council meeting, I was thrown out for speaking Irish. Now the council is publishing literature in both Irish and English. It has pumped thousands of pounds into Irish language arts, and during the last term twice on St. Patrick's Day I organised a ceilidh. So you have change. That encapsulates why the Sinn Féin team stands on its record. It has made a difference. There is a long way to go. We want to continue that work.

``We are in City Hall to represent our constituents and if somebody puts an obstacle in your way, you have to get around it or over it or under it. The cases we have brought have been so obvious and blatant that there could have been no other judgement. We got the change, we got the gain.''

Hartley is certain of the political and material benefits gained by the nationalist constituency due to Sinn Féin's presence in City Hall, ``It is recognised by everyone that Sinn Féin has opened up the city council, and asserted the rights of nationalists in a way that has not been done before. We are turning the City Hall from a council for one section of the community into a council for all. Sinn Fein is no longer the party of protest and resistance, it is the party of change.''

Sinn Fein has played a significant part in changing Belfast council from one motivated by bigotry, sectarianism and one-tradition rule, into a more legitimate political forum. The 21 May elections offer the nationalist electorate of Belfast the opportunity to increase Sinn Féin's representation and allow them to win their battles for equality of treatment for citizens in resources, employment and representation, and parity of esteem for nationalists.
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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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