30 June 2013 Edition
A good year ends – Tierna Cunningham
Outgoing Deputy Mayor of Belfast, councillor and working mother
‘You soon realise that negotiating with a two-year-old can be more difficult than negotiating with the other political parties’
AS Sinn Féin’s Mairtín Ó Muilleoir was getting ready to take up the post of Mayor of Belfast, party colleague Tierna Cunningham was handing over her position as Deputy Mayor to the DUP’s Christopher Stalford.
In between the changeover, Tierna spoke to An Phoblacht about a year in which she used her office to open up the City Hall to so many different people and causes.
SITTING in her room in City Hall under the portrait of the legendary republican socialist Winifred Carney, Tierna rhymes off a list of meetings and events she attended and so many people who inspired her. It’s easy to see that Tierna is a ‘people person’.
She carried out her responsibilities as Deputy Mayor of Belfast, represented her constituents as a Sinn Féin councillor and continued her work as a full-time youth worker with north Belfast ex-prisoners’ group Tar Isteach.
What is most remarkable about Tierna’s year in office is that she performed these separate roles on top of her most important one – as a working mother, Tierna’s son, Seán, is at the heart of everything she does. She makes it clear that her most important job is “being Seán’s mother”.
“Working mothers shouldn’t be deterred about taking on challenges like this.
“Sometimes I had to bring Seán with me and, in fairness, people were very understanding and tolerant, especially when Seán was teething and going through ‘The Terrible 2s’.
“But I will say one thing,” she jokes, “you soon realise that negotiating with a two-year-old can be more difficult than negotiating with the other political parties.”
• Tierna’s son, Seán, is at the heart of everything she does
Tierna was in office during the protests over November’s vote to reduce the number of days the Union flag is to be flow over City Hall. Did the violent protests that disrupted the city at its busiest time of the year affect the way she did her job and fulfil her engagements?
“We didn’t let it impact on our work or our relationships within or outside the council. Sinn Féin as a party showed great leadership through the crisis and I continued to fulfil my engagements.
“In fact, on 15 December, Mayor Gavin Robinson of the DUP and myself hosted a Good Relations conference in the City Hall.”
There are burgeoning populations from Eastern European countries, the ever-expanding Chinese population and families coming from Africa.
The “new citizens”, as Tierna calls them, were an inspiration to her.
“I attended a number of functions celebrating the anniversaries of countries that achieved their freedom from British rule. I met people from Nigeria, Uganda and Jamaica. They were very humbled that I would attend their celebrations but I told them that I was equally humbled and explained that, as republicans, we were inspired by them as they had actually achieved freedom from Britain.
“For me it was important to send out the message that those people arriving here should be regarded as equal citizens and our political system should reflect that.”
• Tierna at the uneveiling of the mayoral portrait of Niall Ó Donnghaile by republican artist Danny Devenney (left)
Close to Tierna’s heart were the charities she was able to sponsor and she chose four that she believed were especially worthy of the support of City Hall: the Joby Murphy Trust, New Life Counselling, the Welcome Centre and the Oscar Knox Appeal.
Four-year-old Oscar Knox was fighting a rare form of cancer and became something of a celebrity as he appeared on TV and at events during an imaginative fund-raising campaign. Thankfully, ‘Wee Oscar’, as he’s known across the city, has recently been given the all-clear.
“I was so inspired by ‘Fearless Oscar’ and wanted to help so I got together with people from the boxing fraternity and we put a fight card together in City Hall. It was a brilliant night.
“When I look back over the year and the events I’ve attended, I think being Deputy Mayor and representing the council and Sinn Féin at the head of the Pride Parade in Belfast was one of the best moments of my time in office.
“I am a proud republican and equality is our watchword. To stand shoulder to shoulder with people fighting for equal rights was such a good experience.”
• For about 10 minutes Belfast had a Sinn Féin Mayor and Deputy Mayor