For the past 12 months, I’ve had the good fortune to serve as Deputy Mayor of Castlereagh Borough Council. I enjoyed attending a wide variety of social and community events, such as the launch of the Special Olympics at the Waterfront Hall. It was great to see so many people involved, as competitors, volunteers and spectators, from right across Northern Ireland.
After 17 years as a councillor, I recognise all the professionalism and dedication that goes on behind the scenes in the running of the council. As Deputy Mayor, many functions were held both inside and outside the council, and I appreciate the hard work of staff members in these events, hosted by the Major or Deputy Mayor.
Being Deputy Mayor was a valuable insight, not one that non-unionist Castlereagh councillors get to see, as I was the first non-unionist to hold the post in 15 years. My constituents appeared happy to have me represent all the people and all our communities; I was grateful to receive this compliment on numerous occasions.
But I’m also very aware of the public’s despair at the inactivity of those they’ve elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. While there’s no denying that MLAs are addressing constituency matters, the money they’re collecting is for them to address serious and pressing matters, such as water charges, rates, our schools, hospitals, planning and our economy, among others – matters that have immediate effects upon all of us.
It is long time for our politicians to get over petty differences and get on with bread-and-butter politics. It is long time for our MLAs to stop neglecting the people of Northern Ireland.
Here’s a good example of pettiness. Up at the Assembly, a committee of MLAs has been established, “Preparation for Government”. There’s a wrangle over who should chair it. Now, four out of the five Assembly political parties have agreed a way forward, but the DUP have said, “No.” Sound familiar?
The Secretary of State issued a directive to resolve this immediate matter, but the Government still needs to appreciate its responsibilities in making progress. It is naïve to expect our local politicians to spontaneously and unanimously agree solutions. The Government needs to convene a proper multi-party talks process, to address the larger barriers to progress.
So, although it is right for Peter Hain to say that the people of Northern Ireland deserve representative government from those they’ve elected, he also needs to recognise what the real barriers are. It is not the case of none of the parties wanting to work with each other, but more the case of specific parties wanting progress only on its terms.
There are times when such obstacles must be removed, for the good of all the people. We can no longer allow those who want to stand alone to hold back the rest of us who want to move forward.