An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

21 August 2003 Edition

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Lone voice in the wilderness

BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN

Briege Meehan does not go gentle into that good night.

As the only Sinn Féin representative to sit on the Protestant dominated Newtownabbey Borough Council, she has first hand experience of unionist intransigence, institutionalised bigotry, and a degree of unprofessionalism that would make any three-year-old blush.

"It has been absolutely horrendous," she says, speaking of her treatment during the last two years on the council. "There are times when you go up to council meetings feeling really confident and you want to express that confidence within the chamber, but the way you're treated... It does deflate you on occasion. But it also makes you stronger."

Meehan recalls a day when the council met last year. A DUP Minister, who leads the Council in prayer before the monthly meetings, was in attendance that day.

"I don't attend the prayer session," says Meehan, "but I still put out my hand to shake his and said, 'I'm Breige Meehan, Sinn Féin councillor.' He shouted, "Take your hand away from me, they're full of blood!" And then he yelled all the atrocities of the day. There are two SDLP persons on the council. They had heard what he had shouted, but they were still headed inside. I asked them, 'why are you going in to listen to that man after what he said to me?' And I was told, 'fight your own corner'.

"The ironic thing about it was that a reporter who went in, and was present during the prayers, phoned me the next day. He said, 'Briege, you'll not believe this. Do you know what he (the Minister) was preaching about?' 'What?' I asked. 'Love thy neighbour...' he said."

"They call her 'Sinn Féin Briege,'" says Martin Meehan, Briege's partner of 26 years. "The abuse she has had to endure is disgusting. Newtownabbey Council is 93% Protestant. They make her sit on her own at meetings and regularly treat her with complete contempt."

An example of that contempt took place when the new Mayor - the DUP's Paul Girvan - was elected to office. He gave a speech about equality and stated, "I'll be here for everyone." Afterwards, the council adjourned to the chamber while the new Mayor served tea. Well. Almost everyone.

"He just left me sitting there," says Meehan. "I was not offered tea or anything else. But it doesn't annoy me in the slightest.

"What does bother me, is that I can't get anything done without a constant battle. I'm excluded from positions within all of their committees. They vote for each other. They just get together and have a wee tête-á-tête. They also shout me down quite a lot," she smiles. "But I do shout back."

Meehan's goal within the Glengormley area is to get a purpose-built community center built, which would be available to the entire community - from toddler groups right through to the aged. But in spite of an innovative plan, her attempts have been thwarted.

"I thought I had hit on a terrific plan," she says. "I was told by the council that they didn't own any land on the Hightown Road, which is true. But St Enda's GAA has spare land, so I grabbed on to this idea about the land at St Enda's. I brought out Brenda Turnbull, a devolpment officer in the Newtownabbey Borough council, to meet with the committee and discuss the possibility of them purchasing some of the land for the center to be built there. I thought it was a very fruitful meeting. And then someone on the committee received a short letter, saying it wasn't feasible. End of story. No explanation, nothing. Just that it 'wasn't feasible'.

"We're still going to fight the decision. There's no other land available. And that is one of the things I really want to get done. I've been working on the idea since I was first elected to the council two years ago."

Meehan is also awaiting a date for a judicial review, taken against Newtownabbey council for their sectarian discrimination against the nationalist community in Glengormley.

"The nationalist population in Glengormley has quadrupled over this last number of years," she says. "Glengormley now is predominately nationalist. The people who live there simply want value for their money. They pay the highest rates in the north, yet all the facilities in the Newtownabbey district are in unionist areas.

"We are also getting calls from the unionist community, asking for our assistance on one thing or another. I believe it is because people know their complaint will be dealt with quickly and positively."

The issues of concern to Meehan and those she represents on the ground are the same as most places in the Six Counties; leisure facilities - or the lack thereof, playgrounds for young children, parks for quality of life. But the deeply sectarian nature of the local political scene is never far away.

Orange marches are a constant concern. This summer, more than 10,000 Orangemen and their supporters gathered in the area and life for nationalists was brought to a standstill.

Newtownabbey council also flies the British flag outside its chambers 24 hours a day, but when Meehan raised the issue, the response was fast and furious.

"One of the councillors remarked that if the flag was taken down tomorrow, he'd have a thousand up by that night," she says, "and he meant it."

When an Orange Order arch recently appeared in the centre of Glengormley, Meehan's phone rang non-stop. "People are deeply, deeply offended by the erection of the arch," she says. "The majority of residents in Glengormley are opposed to it. It wasn't even in the village until about five years ago. It used to be up at Queen's Park. I have asked the Orange Order why they don't put it where it's more appreciated, but they haven't gotten back to me.

"So I have met with the Parades Commission regarding both the arch and the marches in general, in the hope that things can change next year. But I have already been told that it won't be removed this year."

Behind the insulting and deeply bigoted conduct of her fellow council members is the blatant sectarianism of unionist paramilitaries. Meehan has been threatened with death on so many occasions since she took her seat, she has lost count.

"It started on my very first day," she sighs. "Two years ago in June. It was the first night I was to sit on the council. The PSNI came to my door around five in the evening and told me they had gotten a threat. The LVF had said that if I entered the council chamber I'd be shot on sight. I still went. I was more than a little anxious, but I went.

"Now it's the 'Loyalist Action Force', she says, referring to the most recent threat, which came only last week. "But they aren't going to shoot me, they're going to use 'bombs and grenades'. It can be alarming and stressful but I guess I must be doing something right.

"Alex Maskey has been a big inspiration. He was the first Sinn Féin Councillor in Belfast, so he knows what I'm going through and he has been very, very supportive. Whenever I find myself under pressure I say to myself, 'Alex, where are you'?

"He actually told me, 'some days you'll come home and you'll want to cry, but there'll be other days when you feel brilliant' and that's true. Some days I come home and say, 'What the hell am I going up there for?' But other days, it's great. You come home just ecstatic, and that makes up for it a bit.

"At one of the last meetings in June, I was making a point about the bigotry within the council. I was just fed up with it and I ended up being hammered out of the meeting! The mayor was pounding the table with a gavel yelling, 'Order, order,' and here's me, yelling back at him. It was brilliant."

Five people have been killed by loyalist paramilitaries in the Glengormley area in the past few years and this has taken its toll on residents. Many live in constant fear of further attacks.

"Young Danny McColgan, a postman, was murdered going to work in a sorting office in Rathcoole," says Meehan. "Prior to his death I had called for the closure of that office because people from Glengormley had come to me and said that when they had to go to that office to collect letters or parcels, they were uncomfortable and concerned. I called for its closure but nothing happened. Then Daniel was killed and I pressed and pressed and actually got it shut down. But the council didn't like that. They actually prayed at one of their meetings for it to be reopened."

In spite of continuous attempts to isolate and intimidate her, Meehan is a woman determined to make a difference and she remains optomistic that things can improve.

"I would call on all the political parties to work together for the benefit of all the people of the Newtownabbey district," she says, "We are wasting too many opportunities because of this, things that would benefit all the people of our area.

"And I would like to see more women and young people from the Glengormley area joining Sinn Féin. It's very, very important in an area like Glengormley because people tend to keep low because of all the murders in recent years. But I can't do this on my own. It's impossible. I tell people, 'I have to have you with me'. So I would like to encourage people to come and have a chat about Sinn Féin membership."

Anyone in the Glengormley area interested in joining Sinn Féin can contact Briege Meehan through Gerry Kelly's north Belfast office.


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