I remember the first time I entered City Hall, it was on a school trip in second year of secondary school. It was an exciting adventure, as most school trips are given the fact that you are out of the classroom for a while. However there was a degree of anxiety on my part that day as well.
Like many thousands of Belfast citizens (or as former Mayor Tom Hartley calls us ‘Béal Feirstians’) I had passed the impressive building on countless occasions without ever being in it. I remember the first Republican rally to make its way to the City Hall in the 1990s; I ventured with the crowds of people from the Short Strand as we made our way proudly over the Bridge and into the centre of the city as a republican community.
That was a good day.
But even before that day and certainly since it, the City Hall has been a major site of struggle for Irish Republicans.
(A man who would be Mayor - This photo shows Gerry Adams leaving the City Hall in 1983 with Sinn Féin activists and supporters. To his immediate right is long standing Sinn Féin Councillor for Lower Falls, Tom Hartley who was only the second Sinn Féin Mayor of the city from 2008-2009)
When I entered City Hall I couldn’t help but be impressed with the architecture and appearance of the place; that feeling is very suddenly replaced with a feeling of isolation and hostility. On that day there was not one indication, not one reflection of me, my community, our culture and our history. Due to the work of some councillors that has since changed, if only in a small way. A bust of Republican revolutionary and humanitarian Belfast woman Mary-Ann McCracken now resides proudly in the City Hall; a window commemorating the great hunger in Ireland also has a prominent spot in the building.
But even yet when I enter the City Hall the trappings of British Militarism, colonialism and monarchy are in abundance. In the year 2009 that simply isn’t good enough.
The city of Belfast has and is continually changing, the people who make up our city come from many different backgrounds, many different places, this is of course a good thing that adds to the experience of Béal Feirste.
Because it is changing, the seat of civic responsibility must also change to reflect that.
Last Thursday I was in the public gallery of the council chamber, I watched Conor Maskey of Sinn Féin make the case diligently for change in the newly refurbished and now centurion City Hall. His argument won over. With the exception of the DUP, lead by MEP Diane Dodds (I was surprised to see her given how many times I witnessed her committing herself to giving up her council seat if she was elected to the European Parliament) making typical ignorant and sectarian arguments against throwing open the doors of the City Hall and allowing the space and ability for all our people to express themselves.Sinn Féin’s argument has never, ever been about taking down what is already there, we have been about creating and solidifying the conditions where the City Hall is open to, belongs to and reflects every Béal Feirstian, whether born and reared here or new to our city.
Most notably for me, as a member of the Irish speaking community here in the city, is the commitment by the Council to commission a major piece of art to be displayed in City Hall that reflects the vibrancy and history of Gaeilgeoirí in Belfast. I look forward to seeing it!
Long gone are the days when “ULSTER SAYS NO!” banners adorned the front and back of the City Hall; gone are the days when my friend and comrade Alex Maskey was the sole Sinn Féin voice in the chamber, subjected to intimidation, vile sectarian abuse and murder attempts; gone are the days when the City Hall itself was in the sole possession of a small group of wealthy, Unionist militarists.
The City Hall is now a hub of activity, with the Belfast Wheel, with the various continental markets, with its doors soon reopening to an ever changing and positive population outside. We must continue to ensure that instead of being a monolith in the possession of on side of our community it acts as a canvass for all of us to paint on.
Many people I know are still uncomfortable with entering the City Hall, I appreciate that, my answer always is to get in and make it their own. To take the lead from Alex, from Pat Beag, from Seán, from Marie and the many more in between, the people who stood their ground and made not just a building but the whole civic nature of Belfast an equal and fair playing field.
With the co-option of Caoimhín Mac Giolla Mhín on Thursday, in place of Paul Maskey who remains in the Assembly, the Chamber will once again be graced with the native language of the city it represents, Béal Feirste.
Much work lies ahead to make the City Hall, quite simply put, ‘better’.
It still remains a daunting and broadly unreflective place for many people, the work to change that must be concluded.
Every day of the year the City Hall breaches equality legislation with the flying of the Union Flag above it’s ‘Dome of Delight’. It still has various statues to British Military personnel and organisations scattered throughout its grounds, with nothing but the people who gather on its lawns on the occasional sunny days we get to indicate the different makeup of Béal Feirste.
So like I said we still have some way to go to create the conditions where the hub of Belfast acts as a beacon to reflect everyone who resides here; it’s exciting work and work that Sinn Féin is committed to!
Ar aghaidh linn, achan duine, le cheile!