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Column: There should not be any 'no go' areas for politicians in Belfast

The contemptible attack on Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir put the worst aspects of Belfast city on display last week. Do we really want a city where the mayor is seen as an enemy simply because he comes from the other community? asks David McCann.

Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

LOCAL POLITICS IN Belfast have been in the headlines a lot this year and for all the wrong reasons. Just when you thought the debacle over Ruth Patterson’s Facebook comments wasn’t bad enough, another event this week caused problems for the city’s already damaged reputation.

While he was visiting Woodvale Park in North Belfast, the Sinn Fein Mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, was attacked by loyalist protesters as he conducted duties that mayors do in cities across the world. The images of PSNI officers having to scramble to protect Ó Muilleoir as he simply tried to do his job put the worst aspects of this city on display as messages of support came from the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.

A ‘no go’ area

The fact that this story is making news 3,000 miles away is further illustration that continuing violence simply trails the reputation of Belfast through the mud. Yet what was most remarkable about this event was that it appears that Ó Muilleoir can count on more support from the United States than he can from his DUP colleagues in the city council.

Instead of launching into a forceful condemnation about the thuggery that a public representative was subjected to, some in the DUP opted to point out that this event was a ‘no go’ area for the mayor. A honourable exception to this pandering goes to the new Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton and his predecessor, Sammy Wilson who rightly condemned the scenes of violence.

Sadly this was the exception within the DUP as a deafening silence emanated from the rest of the party over this issue. When sectarian violence such as this happens we need strong condemnation, not equivocation

A ‘shared future’ in Northern Ireland

We often hear talk about a ‘shared future’ in Northern Ireland. It has to be the most used and abused phrase in politics in this province. Yet I fail to see how we are ever going to get there if we pursue with the logic of ‘no go’ areas. Do we really want a city where the mayor is regarded as an enemy simply because he comes from the other community? The role of the mayor should be bringing people together and emphasising the things that unite us rather than the mindless sectarian nonsense that divides us.

Anyone who visits Belfast realises very quickly that it is a divided city with its numerous peace walls, divided services and education. Yet at its core there has always been a population that has just wanted to get on with their lives. Go into the city centre in the evening you see pubs full to the rafters with people and thousands of tourists enjoying this culturally rich city. Sadly some of the city’s politicians would rather emphasise the former aspects of this city rather than the latter.

Putting off investors, tourists, and social change

The protesters who attacked the mayor and injured more PSNI officers did nothing to advance the cause of the loyalist community in Belfast. Those very same protesters who complain about lack of jobs, housing and cultural recognition have only served to put off investors and ensured that one thing that nobody was speaking about the day after was furthering loyalist culture.

We need politicians to break down barriers, not govern from within their silos. Often I am critical that politicians in Northern Ireland are not imaginative enough in creating a shared future. However since coming to office, Mayor Ó Muilleoir has attempted real and genuine outreach to the Unionist community. For this he should be applauded, not shouted down.

The moderate approach is not always the fashionable thing to do in Northern politics; the easy way is to preach the ‘no go’ logic of the past. When a moderate political leader comes along extending his hand, others could do well to just for a moment unclench their fists and leave ‘no go’ politics in the past where it belongs.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for click here.

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Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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