In the absence of an Executive, the position of Belfast Mayor has more strategic importance than before realised. Coupled with the expansion of the council in powers and geography, the City Council is a significant model of local powers within devolved areas. Belfast might not have responsibilities like policing, as they have in London, but there are revenue raising powers and significant investment strategies, that in some ways are taking the edge off the lack of Assembly capital projects.
Having a figure head to this new model holds obvious importance, that few have realised in practice. Without undermining the ground-breaking contributions of other mayors, not least the first republican mayor of Belfast Alex Maskey or West Belfast’s great ambassador Tom Hartley, I’m not sure many would deny that Máirtín O Muilleoir redefined the position in terms of scope and potential. And that was before the changes to a super council. Nichola Mallon’s focus on sport was innovative and fun, and after such a tough act to follow, her mayorship is remembered in its own right. It is no surprise that both she and Máirtín are now Assembly members and stars in their respective parties. Neither used the position of Mayor for personal advancement, it was about public service. And that was a key message to the citizens of Belfast about their first citizen.
Deirdre Hargey is the type of politician I like. Hard working, responsive and a listener. She likes new ideas and innovation. She takes them and thinks about how they might fit to existing strategies or how new strategies might be developed. She opens doors, doesn’t close them after her and builds ladders to climb, particularly for women. She makes strategies not only happen, but happen well. A public servant to her fingertips.
Her appointment to the position of mayor is long overdue. Not only in the context of Sinn Féin, (with five previous mayors all being men, no matter how worthy, and the three deputy mayors all being women), but in the context of the City Council. She knows it inside out. If you spend a tiny amount of time in her company you will realise that everyone who works in City Hall and its many departments knows Deirdre. From the lads who might have a parking space out back of City Hall if you’re going in for a meeting, to the dedicated managers of the multitude of departments.
And she is deeply principled. Dropping the lord thing immediately, just wanting to be called mayor spoke to many of us who hate the nonsense of imperial cap tipping and is was indeed a tús maith. Her republicanism is confident, friendly and accessible. It means that, despite the ridiculous spectacle that unionist representatives made of themselves the night of her appointment, she is very well respected across party lines.
Her focus on human rights within minutes of her installation was important. Rights based frameworks are not only for sovereign or devolved governments. Applying their principles in local government in day to day ways could be transformative. Especially if it becomes core policy. It is also, in international terms, highly innovative.
With Gaeilgeoir and human rights advocate Cllr Emmet McDonagh Brown, as our Deputy Mayor the year holds real promise.
But it also holds significant challenge. We are in the middle of a local political crisis, with absolutely no sign of resolution and Brexit is coming. Belfast City Council, our mayor and deputy mayor and our thousands of citizens will need to work strategically together. Deirdre Hargey’s overdue appointment could well have come at exactly the right time afterall.