Travels through Northern Ireland

The Election of the Lord Mayor

On Thursday (May 26th) the Belfast City Council elected its new Lord Mayor. The chamber is set-up such that on each half of the room sits parties that generally agree with each other, meaning they are very often physically facing off against one another. The session began with a representative from each party articulating the successes of the outgoing Lord Mayor, what a joy he was to work with, the strength of this character and the fairness he demonstrated as Lord Mayor. The debate then moved to the election of a new Lord Mayor, to serve (as best as I could tell) as a moderator for the debate within the City Council and its external representative. The outgoing Lord Mayor called for any nominations, and one was put forth and the room was silent. Then a point of order was called.

Apparently on Tuesday the City Council had meet to determine the voting process for the new Lord Mayor, and had decided to go with the d’hondt system – meaning that votes were allocated based on the number of people represented by a given party. While this voting method had been agreed upon on Tuesday, the point of order held that the decision had yet to be ratified.

According to the SDLP (a political party) representative sitting in front of us, ‘they always use the rules to delay debate’. This is not an uncommon tactic in political debates from student groups to governments, and the associated frustrations are not unique either. And, as is the case with most stalling tactics, there is an underlying grievance. In this case, the Unionists did not want votes to be allocated by political party, but rather by political bloc. This is because there are many smaller Unionist parts that make up a larger bloc, and so more power was to be had when voting was allocated by bloc.

The outgoing Lord Mayor asked again for any other nominations and none were made. So it became clear that whatever objections the Unionists (more precisely, the DUP) where not significant enough to reverse the decision the council had made on Tuesday night.

And so the incoming Lord Mayor, Niall Ó’Donnghaile of Sinn Fein, was elected. At only 25 years old he is the youngest mayor to ever serve the city of Belfast, and he is only on his first term as a city councilmen. He spoke with confidence during his acceptance speech and said as a relatively young mayor he wanted to reach out to youth to show they to have a role in society. He also spoke about the increasing role of minorities and the need to include them in society – promoting Sinn Fein’s equality platform.

Then came the election of the Deputy Lord Mayor, again with only one nomination put forth. Ruth Patterson was elected, which caused a significant amount of murmuring as Patterson carries a reputation of being a hard-line Unionist (someone in favor of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK). During her acceptance speech she said she believed, “Belfast is the best city in the United Kingdom.” She spoke of continuing development, and she spoke without ever looking at the incoming Lord Mayor who sat next to her – it was a very clear snub.

The incoming Lord Mayor, who during her speech made no indication he noticed the snub,  said thank you. And he said it in Irish-Gaelic – which promoted an eye-roll from the newly elected Deputy. Unfortunately, it would seem that neither have the easiest of work relationships ahead of them.

But the show was not over. An elderly councilman stood and expressed his concern that such a young Lord Mayor might not have the experience needed for such an important role, to which a member of Sinn Fein stood up and replied, “It didn’t stop Barack Obama.” This prompted laughter from only one side of the room.

After the elections we got the opportunity to speak with Guy Spence, a newly elected DUP councilman and only 19 years old. Right off the bat he confirmed that he is indeed, “the baby” in the room. When he found out we were from Boston, he excited told us he had a great-great-grandmother from Boston. Spence was hugely optimistic about the future, and about the potential for development in his district. He said he sensed a change in his neighborhood’s approach to politics. During his campaign he was very frequently asked, “What are you going to do for me?” Despite having been out on several campaigns before, he had never heard that questions being asked – which he hope was a sign that people were finally ready to seek change through their representatives.

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