Feature

Building the peace in Belfast
Newly elected Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir speaks to Martin O’Brien

Approachable, articulate, refreshingly frank in his answers, and passionate about anchoring the peace, the recently-elected Lord Mayor of Belfast seems poised to break new ground for the right reasons in the coming year.

Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, like all Sinn Féin colleagues, may not feel able to stray off the party line and say the IRA campaign was wrong.  But he appears anxious to go further than any previous Sinn Féin Lord Mayor and further than any party colleague so far to reach out to Protestants and build trust.   

Unlike previous Sinn Féin first citizens this 53-year-old businessman, champion of the Irish language and married father of four, is comfortable using correct terms such as ‘Lord Mayor’ and ‘Royal British Legion’ rather than ‘Mayor’ and ‘British Legion’. A significant gesture of respect and tolerance in a place where people are touchy over nomenclature and symbols. Is this indicative of a maturity, a sense of security and a confidence not present before?

Proclamation 

The 1916 Proclamation hangs proudly on the wall of the Lord Mayor’s parlour. But so too no fewer than three signed photographs of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the late Queen Mother, left unmolested in the changeover from his immediate DUP predecessor.

Only two years ago a previous Sinn Féin occupant angered unionists by removing some royal portraits and had to apologise for declining to present a Duke of Edinburgh award to an army cadet. But Mr Ó Muilleoir seems anxious to avoid offence and push boundaries in the cause of conciliation.  

“The correct title is Lord Mayor and you should treat people as you would wish to be treated. Respect doesn’t cost anything. There are [Unionist] people in this city who revere these titles and why would we poke them in the eye with a stick?”

New society 

Stressing he is “not a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor” but one for the whole city he adds:  “Are Unionists to believe in this new society we are trying to create there is to be no observance of all the things they hold dear? That all the titles they had, all the portraits they had, that this new society holds that from them. That for me would not be a good idea.”

As Lord Mayor one of his jobs is to welcome dignitaries and he would “with colleagues very seriously consider” any invitation to meet a member of the British Royal family. He discloses he is already in discussion with the Royal British Legion to create a Remembrance Day event he could attend “and I travel in hope believing politics is the art of the possible”.

He admits the loyalist protests against the City Council’s decision to fly the Union flag on designated days and not the whole year round is a “set back” from which “we have come back strongly”.

Mr Ó Muilleoir says “it caused hurt to a large swathe of ordinary Protestants”.

Although defending the decision, he recognises “the sensitivity of the issue”, adding “I think everyone here has learned a lot from it”.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, one of seven children of Sammy and Bridie Millar was brought up in the Andersonstown area of West Belfast in a family of “deep faith and devotion”.

He graduated in absentia in Celtic Studies and Anthropology from Queen’s University because the university then played the British national anthem at graduations and recalls “a tough time for Catholics”. At a job interview at Stormont he walked past the “biggest Union Jack” he had ever seen “thinking to myself these people are letting you know who is in control”.

The early days of The Troubles, including internment, the torture of internees and Bloody Sunday - when as a 12 year old he “cried that night” - are seared in his memory.

So, too, is the IRA killing in crossfire of his mother’s friend and neighbour Martha Crawford, a mother of 10, eight weeks after Bloody Sunday. His parents, both implacably opposed to violence started up a peace movement which the IRA squashed and “republicans put our windows in”.

Guerrilla warfare 

His parents were “absolutely right” to oppose violence. “How could any parent support guerrilla warfare in an urban area? We knew so many people who ended up dead.”

But as a young person “in my gut” he supported “those who fought back” and “identified with the IRA”.  In answer to a question he says “No, I wouldn’t say the campaign was wrong” but stresses “it would have been great” if there had been “another way”. “I absolutely regret we ended up in a 30 year cycle of violence.”

He adds: “I think when you take up arms it can lead you to all sorts of places where you don’t want to be.”

Apparently torn between his parents’ outright rejection of violence and his own stance he cites with apparent approval the Welsh language movement who “didn’t use fire because once you use fire innocents will perish, you have no control over it”.

He says his parents’ generation has not been given enough credit for rearing big families, stressing the importance of education and producing the generation that has produced the peace process.

On the Catholic Church’s attitude to the conflict he says “the Church lost us” [the young generation] at the time of the hunger strikes in 1981 because the then Bishop of Down and Connor, the late Dr William Philbin “did not speak truth to power” as Archbishop Romero did in El Salvador. He recalls refusing to accept a certificate from the bishop when he completed a diocesan youth course.

Authority 

He claims Dr Philbin’s successor, the late Cardinal Cahal Daly “finished it off” and “lost his flock and authority” by not speaking out against “collusion on an industrial scale that has now been admitted by Mr Cameron”.

When it was put to him that Cardinal Daly would be seen by many as a prophetic voice against IRA violence, believed to have influenced Pope John Paul II’s famous denunciation of violence at Drogheda, the Lord Mayor said he did not wish to speak ill of the dead and those who could not defend themselves.

But he repeated the substance of his charge while praising Cardinal O Fiaich and a host of Catholic priests “who have been at the coal face” over the years including Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard, Fr Des Wilson of Ballymurphy, Fr Martin Magill, St Oliver Plunkett Parish and Fr Paddy McCafferty, a survivor of clerical sex abuse.  

Mr Ó Muilleoir attended Sunday Mass for the first time in 30 years when he took his 84-year-old mother to St Agnes Parish the Sunday after his election and was “amazed” the church was perhaps 20 per cent full compared to the full house when he was last there. He did not receive Communion but praises faith for the support it gives people.

He rounds on those “stupid people” who “dismiss the good of the Church, the power of faith, the good of the Gospels, the good of religion and its power to change hearts”.

An admirer of the Catholic Church’s support for social justice he singles out the work of St Vincent de Paul, and ministries to those with addictions and marriage problems for special praise.

He recalls his first engagement as Lord Mayor the evening of his election was with a cross-community group of clergy and that he lost no time in congratulating Mother Molly Caldwell of the Adoration Chapel, Falls Road on her election as Superior General of the Sisters of Adoration and Reparation.

But perhaps his most touching experience since his election has been his first ever visit to the Clonard Novena at the invitation of Fr Gerry Reynolds who invited him to briefly address the congregation.

“Why was Clonard packed with people and other churches are so poorly attended,” he asks. He’d actually answered his question earlier by asking “Is there a better exemplar of the Gospels in Europe than in Clonard? If there is I’d like to see it.”

It’s the question of a man who cares deeply about the faith whatever his Mass attendance.  His parting shot, “Don’t write me off, Martin,” suggests future twists in his faith journey.