The misunderstood Lord Mayor shuffle – timing, facts & Sinn Féin tying themselves in knots over friendship

May 2012 front page An PhoblachtOnce a month, the postie delivers a bulging A5 envelope. Stuffed inside is a twice-folded copy of An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s 32 page monthly newspaper.

The May edition’s back page is devoted to a story that broke in the Belfast Telegraph last Monday. Niall Ó Donnghaile is “leaving his post a few days early to allow a DUP Mayor to take up office in time for the Jubilee celebrations”.

The newspaper story explained that the new mayor would be “elected at a meeting on Friday June 1” ahead of the long weekend and “festivities marking the Queen’s 60 years on the throne”. Sinn Féin’s group leader on Belfast City Council Jim McVeigh was quoted extensively, and reported to say “we knew that the Jubilee celebrations were coming up and had a discussion with the DUP about that”.

Former UUP Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers called the move a snub: “It is definitely a snub … It is unfortunate in view of what the Deputy First Minister said last year – that he would meet the Queen”.

One fact remained missing from public view. Strangely, Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh didn’t seem to make clear to the Belfast Telegraph when the decision to transfer early was made. That one fact would have significantly changed the impact of the story and the feeling of disappointment felt by many watching the story unfold. It took several days for details about the timing to emerge

An Phoblacht explains that “the decision was agreed with the DUP 12 months ago, making nonsense of a Belfast Telegraph splash that it is a ‘snub’ to unionists”.

Jim McVeigh commented:

Contrary to this being a snub to anyone, rather we were trying to accommodate unionists. We were conscious that the Jubilee celebrations are a big deal for unionists and therefore we offered to accommodate them. Ironically, at the time of those discussions, Niall might not have been aware that Sinn Féin had chosen him to take up the role.

An Phoblacht adds:

Councillor McVeigh said this decision was taken because republicans recognise that events such as this are hugely symbolic for unionist and loyalist communities even though ‘we as republicans are obviously not keen to celebrate the Jubilee in any shape or form’.

The Belfast Telegraph weren’t the only people who hadn’t been told the whole story. The DUP deputy Lord Mayor Ruth Patterson couldn’t have been in full possession or recollection of the 2011 agreement when she told reporters:

I thought that the current Lord Mayor would have learned a severe lesson from when he refused to present an Army cadet with a certificate last December.

Niall Ó Donnghaile’s term as Lord Mayor started well with visits and engagements across Belfast. Sinn Féin’s bridge building and reconciliation strategy was in full flow … right up to the point that the republican Lord Mayor was informed that he was going to shake the hand of a young army cadet collecting her Duke of Edinburgh award.

Niall’s hesitation and bungled compromise devalued his currency and cast a shadow over the many cross-community engagements he has continued to attend and support.

In the end, even the pragmatic handover of the Lord Mayor’s chains from Sinn Féin to the DUP in time for the Jubilee – an arrangement that smacks both of reconciliation and avoiding embarrassment – has been tainted and misunderstood.

Worshipping in a Presbyterian church that is literally a stone’s throw from Short Strand [Niall’s house would be visible from the spire!] at the beginning of the year I’d have said it was unthinkable that Niall’s mayoral year could pass without him attending a service or event.

Pitt Park bonfire soon after it was litIn a year Niall Ó Donnghaile would have moved across the road: from last July when his election poster was burnt on of the Pitt Park bonfire to being welcomed into a local church.

Yet now, with Titanic concerts and Yardmen services over, it sadly seems unthinkable that there will be a convenient opportunity for him to attend this year … or maybe even next year. While there have been many small steps taken throughout the year, some of the opportunities along with the trust capital have evaporated.

The DUP – who seem likely to appoint another capable young councillor Gavin Robinson as Lord Mayor on 1 June – will need some nimble footwork and forethought if they are to out-engage and out-reconcile Sinn Fein and not fall into similar traps.

Gareth Russell blogged earlier this week on Confessions of a Ci-Devant:

In February, many of the Sinn Fein councillors had voted to approve the spending of £56,000 (about USD 90,000) towards local community organisations across Belfast who wanted to organise their own celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee.

Sinn Féin’s programme of reconciliation is proving complicated. On one hand Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is preparing the way to be able to meet the Queen, while at a local government level a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor is being denied (or avoiding) that opportunity even after agreeing to pay for community parties.

An Phoblacht also contained a centre page interview with Declan Kearney to reflect on his March An Phoblacht article and Easter Rising remarks that “uncomfortable conversations are key to reconciliation”. He flagged up Martin McGuinness’ speech to the Political Studies Association as “containing important messages” even though it “didn’t garner huge headlines”. [You can listen to the speech via an April post on Slugger.]

Near the end of the printed interview, Declan Kearney says:

Let’s open new possibilities for progress by learning to understand each other better and making new friendships.

Reaching out the hand of friendship isn’t always straightforward.

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