“Almost five years since my term as Lord Mayor ended, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the city, its many successes and the challenges ahead.
My year’s theme was “Belfast Without Barriers”, expressing my ambition for a city that was freed not only from the physical barriers of so-called “peace walls”, but also from the mental, social and economic barriers to active engagement in the life of our city.
Many projects started during that period have now come to fruition. City Hall reopened after refurbishment and its mission was to have the public embrace the building as their own. That was matched by a commitment to utilise the grounds as a valuable shared space and develop others like it throughout the city.
Large projects like Belfast Met, Titanic Belfast, Nomadic, St Malachy’s Church, the Lyric Theatre, Connswater Community Greenway and the Mac, delivered through collaboration, have injected vibrancy into the educational, spiritual, social, artistic and cultural heart of Belfast.
The first visit of the Tall Ships was a landmark event in my term, bringing people from all over Belfast and further afield to the east – something built upon in the last five years, with the return of the Tall Ships, but also the establishment of the Titanic Slipways as a major event destination, hosting the BBC Proms and MTV awards, and the Giro d’Italia connecting neighbourhoods across the city.
In spite of all the positives, it has also been a turbulent time in the city. As a Christian who hosted the first Chanukah celebration in the Lord Mayor’s parlour with Belfast’s Jewish community, worked with the Belfast Islamic Centre and launched the Mela, it pains me that religious minorities in the city still find themselves under attack.
A poignant memory was responding to the vicious attacks on members of the Roma community, yet five years on, in spite of efforts to tackle racism, attacks on migrant workers, foreign nationals and ethnic minorities are on the rise.
I also had the honour of opening the GYLNI centre, where LGBT young people could come for advice and support. Yet, sadly, the homophobia which would see those young people marginalised and treated less equally, continues.
The opening of security gates in places like Alexandra Park offered a glimmer of hope that even the most enduring physical barriers could be removed. Contrast that hope with calls for additional barriers and higher walls that persist today due to interface tension and violence.
At City Hall itself, the eruption of the flag dispute exposed a lack of political maturity and will to find accommodation for the differing aspirations of all Belfast’s citizens. But more: it exposed a lack of interests in preparing communities for change.
Belfast, like every city, is constantly evolving. My ambitions are still for a Belfast Without Barriers and my heart lifts when I catch glimpses how good that can be.
But there are still huge challenges if those moments are to become the enduring Belfast experience for everyone.
Now, more than ever, the city needs not just coherent vision, but generous and courageous leadership to deliver it.”