Friday, March 05, 2010

Talking in the East (part 4) // Niall Ó Donnghaile // Sinn Féin

Back in the Autumn, I put up a series of posts interviewing local East Belfast politicians. I’d one other interview recorded that never quite made it onto the blog. Partly in hope that the UUP would eventually get around to arranging their session, and it took a lot of chasing to get someone in the DUP to say yes.

Sinn Féin's Niall Ó Donnghaile interviewed in the Waterfront Hall, overlooking Titanic Quarter, Stormont and East Belfast/Short Strand

I spoke to Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile on the afternoon of 6 November 2009. That lunchtime, the health unions had organized a rally in front of the City Hall to protest at budget cuts. The health minister Michael McGimpsey attended the rally.

As usual, the interview started by asking about East Belfast.

(Niall) I think East Belfast, like any constituency, can act as a bit of a microcosm for the rest of the North. It’s quite a diverse constituency - not just in terms of its political makeup or its ethnic makeup which is increasing all the time - but also in terms of people’s social and economic experience.

Like everywhere else: people are struggling. People are feeling the stress and the ever growing pressure of an economic recession. We’re coming from a time of what would have been considered great economic prosperity, into a time where people are having to tighten their belts …

You know I’m just away from the rally at the City Hall against any proposed cuts in the health care system and there were hundreds of people at it. Those are the issues that people are concerned about, those are the issues that people are more and more lobbying their politicians on.

We moved on to talk about new developments in East Belfast like Titanic Quarter.

(Niall) Well the difficulty with all of those developments are – at this stage – they are still very much aspirational: they are not here. …

We have a number of master plans floating about the air for East Belfast. I think in this year alone I’ve seen about five or six, and I’m seeing master plan after master plan which is being lauded on each occasion … but what we need to see is results … we need to see the master plans put into action.

I was part of a party delegation that met with Mike Smith and a couple of other people involved in Titanic Quarter. Our party ensured on the City Council that [in] their memorandum of understanding in relation to the signature project, that local established communities were to the fore in terms of the future development of something like Titanic Quarter. Sirocco Quays – as the development is going to be known – is I think worth upwards of £600 million in terms of investment. So these are all great aspirational things, but we need to see them acted upon …

Not just in relation to Short Strand – because there are a number of long established indigenous communities here – but those people need to see the benefits in terms of social housing … in terms of jobs, in terms of economic investment, in terms of skills and training people up whether it be apprenticeships, whether it be catering, whether it be leisure management. Whatever it may be, people locally are going to see the benefits of these developments and that’s something we’ve been stressing from the day and hour these people have come into contact with us …

People on the ground need to feel a change, there’s enough enclaves, there’s enough walls, there’s enough separation across the river there, we don’t need to see anymore. We can’t see a lovely new development with a wall put around it or certainly whether that be a physical wall or a physiological wall … We have been approaching each other at cross-community level – and that’s not maybe a phrase that applies to this because where this is concerned I think we should be speaking as one community and not at across-community level – but as an East Belfast community that people on the ground whether they be from Dee Street or whether Mountpottinger Road, have the benefit tangibly from these developments.

Of course a flyover separates Short Strand and the bottom of the Newtownards Road from the new land of plenty on the other side.

(Niall) And it’s something I’ve personally raised with Conor Murphy in relation to that whole area … There’s a number of different solutions … all of [the master plans] are talking about opening that whole area from the bottom of the Newtownards Road right down Bridge End across into Middlepath Street … Part of that’s very, very definitely taking the flyover there at the bottom of the Newtownards Road and the Short Strand and taking it away and I’m confident it’s going. I think it needs to go and I’d be fairly confident in a relatively short period of time it’ll be away …

But again there’s no point taking that away, you’re still going to have a big road there … Even the DSD’s latest master plan in relation to East Belfast, I must say I was quite disappointed at it. It’s almost as if looking at the thing - and you can accuse me of being parochial if you so wish - but I think the DSD forgot the Short Strand exists when they were carrying out this master plan into that part of the city. And that for me was quite disappointing.

I asked how Short Strand sat in greater East Belfast.

(Niall) You’re right in saying that Short Strand is a nationalist and republican community, but there has always been integration in the Short Strand, whether that be in terms of people coming into work, people travelling through it on the bus or people walking through it to go into the city centre, whatever it might me. You’d also be quite surprised at the amount of people from protestant or unionist backgrounds who actually live in that area, and who are maybe in mixed marriages as well.

Once you actually sit down and think about it, it is actually quite stark, it is actually quite a mixed community but I take your point in terms of how it’s been perceived in the media over the years, it has been viewed and classed as a nationalist and republican community. But there are a lot of - and there have been for a lot of years - there are a lot of projects and work going on on the ground.

So what type of projects and discussions?

(Niall) Personally I have been involved in things that haven’t been public but have involved people coming together and being quite open and being quite frank, having the hard discussions and I think that’s where they need to be had. I think they need to be had on the ground at a community level.

And particularly for someone like myself and for people from the Woodstock or from the bottom of the Newtownards Road, particularly for those of us who are involved in tackling interface trouble and problems on the interface, we need to go in and thrash these things out. I think now I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to – and I wouldn’t want to speak for anyone else, or pre-empt anything – but I think I’m getting to the point now where at a personal level I’m starting to develop relationships and friendships with people who a couple of years ago we wouldn’t have been bothering at all. We wouldn’t have been speaking, we wouldn’t have been in the same room.

There are public aspects to it. Joe O’Donnell from Short Strand Partnership and Gary Mason from the East Belfast Mission have been involved in a number of engagements, talking to each other, two in the Short Strand, two in East Belfast around particular topics and they’ve been good healthy discussions. What I noticed about them all was they were very, very respectful. People really did come away, maybe disagreeing, I wouldn’t say I agreed with everything, but you respected someone else’s opinion.

We’ve been away through working to BCRC which is the Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium - a bit of a tongue twister. We’ve been away where we’ve been in rooms, closed the doors and thrashed the issues out.

So that work goes on and aside from that you’ve pensioners’ groups in the Short Strand that meet with pensioners’ groups from Pitt Park and other places in East Belfast and that’s common place. That work needs to continue. I think that for a lot of the time, it’s better that that work initially happens quietly - that’s not to hide it in any way - but I think everyone would agree that you’ve got to be sensible about it, you need to be long term about it …

Certainly from my own perspective, from working on the interface, trying to quell any problems on the interface, I have had opportunities where I’ve walked up to the bottom of Castlereagh Street, and someone has come down from Castlereagh Street and we’ve met half way and had an open discussion about what we’re doing and what we’re going to do, how we’re going to resolve it, that couldn’t have happened five, ten years ago, it probably couldn’t have happened three years ago. But it’s happening now.

Many of the other politicians I’d talked to raised the issue of the trouble on Bank Holiday Monday following the rally outside Mountpottinger police station.

(Niall) The reality is that you’re probably always going to have problems on the interface. And that’s not a particularly nice or a particular media friendly thing to say. But people living on the ground are probably going to tell you that’s the reality, because we’re dealing with a legacy of conflict, we’re dealing with the undertones of sectarianism that still exist.

I think we’ve come a great path in terms of the troubles, if you compare what was happening in 2002 to what’s happening now. There is work on the ground, there is diversionary work that takes place around some of the key dates where you know there is a potential for trouble, where we have worked to try to get a few pound off OFMDFM and other agencies to try – now I appreciate that that can be classed as a short term thing but it certainly helps – to take a lot of pressure off not just community representatives like myself, but people that live there …

I think in some ways the trouble we saw at the end of August brought a lot of what was happening to a head. You had for the best part of 18 months to two years quite a steady stream of anti-social behaviour at the interfaces that manifested itself quite aggressively after the 30th August. That was the Monday evening.

On the Wed morning I was sitting up on the Newtownards Road with representatives from the loyalist community. We then both met with the PSNI in relation to how they conducted themselves and where they were coming from in relation to the whole incidents over the 18 months. Now that got all the media focus.

There was a fair bit of blame gaming going on and I was more than happy to stand up and articulate the position from within the Short Strand community. But the media and broadly speaking, a lot of people weren’t interested in what was going on there most nights, most weekends for the last 18 months, which was just antisocial behaviour, which was kids organising it through Bebo and mobile phones. It was happening sporadically, it was happening for 20 minutes half an hour and then finishing.

But the people that live there, they live long term with the fear of potential trouble so I’ve seen a stark decrease in trouble on the interface since the end of August, that’s good, I’m not entirely happy - I made my feelings clear at the time in relation to the use of plastic bullets but over the following days I wasn’t happy and I articulated that with the PSNI senior command in East Belfast how they conducted some of the arrests over the following days. But those are issues we have to tackle. I think we’re starting to see results. I think we’re starting to see benefits from the engagements we’re having. But until people are starting to feel safe and content to live there, that’s when I’ll be happy and content.

I asked how Sinn Féin was developing and changing, and we ended up in a discussion about Sinn Féin serving beyond its traditional nationalist or republican electorate.

(Niall) In East Belfast I think we’re starting to see Sinn Féin go to places and speak to people they’ve never been before or spoken to … We share a [constituency] office with Alex Maskey - and I’m seeing all the time that the amount of calls that are coming from traditional unionist communities (or what would be perceived as unionist communities) is actually quite stark. Not too many of them will call down into the office, but that’s fair enough.

But the amount of people you’re seeing coming from a unionist perspective - who probably necessarily aren’t going to vote for Sinn Féin or aren’t going to come out and suddenly change into Irish Republicans because you get their wheelie bins sorted or you get their bathroom sorted by the Housing Executive, but certainly what they’re saying and what they are experiencing is that Sinn Féin are a party that can get things done for them.

I’ve had people say to me - people who are maybe in their 50s and 60s – that some of the more established well known unionist politicians are good in terms of the bigger politics, but in terms of actually getting something done for someone on the ground, they’re maybe just not quite as good at it. So that’s heartening for me in relation to that.

That’s something locally the party has to look at, how we build and how we establish relationships and how we get into places we haven’t been before. But we may have a perception of an idea that there is support for Sinn Féin whether it be a first preference or second or whether it be a third in terms of the council [elections] …

Sinn Féin don’t have an MLA for East Belfast. And they don’t have any councillors in the East Belfast districts. Was Niall hopeful that there would ever be enough of a vote to get a Sinn Féin candidate elected in East Belfast?

(Niall) I don’t think it’s impossible, especially with what we alluded to earlier on and the changing nature of East Belfast. Once Titanic Quarter is finished, once Sirocco Quays is finished, this constituency is going to be dramatically different in terms of its makeup.

All the parties will be fishing in that pool, not just Sinn Féin. But I would be confident that if we can be strong enough, if we can be articulate enough and relevant enough in East Belfast particularly in relation to the developments that are going to happen behind me, I think eventually you’ll see the numbers there to elect a Sinn Féin representative whoever that may be.

But for me elections are important … If you are a politico like myself, they can be enjoyable and they can be a good experience, but I don’t need to be elected to do work for people on the ground and whether I am elected or unelected that won’t stop me either way. Some people do work to get elected. Others get elected to do work.

In the light of the low turnout at the European election and the Westminster expenses scandal, what did Niall think about the current level of public engagement with politics? Was it low, and how could it be changed?

(Niall) I am someone who uses a blog, uses twitter, follows blogs and that aspect of engagement with politics. And I do greatly respect the endeavour to further that and try to make that avenue more accessible to people.

But speaking to you from personal experience, I’ve been in the role of the party’s representative now for since the end of 2006, and the engagement that I have, people aren’t one bit shy about engaging with their politicians. They’re not shy at all.

Short Strand is a small area. I can’t walk from the house to get a paper in the morning in the shop without someone stopping me. That’s fair enough. That’s the way I like it. That’s the engagement that I enjoy and I think is the most beneficial for people, and for me to … But politicians should be accessible, whether they’re accessible in person or accessible through the internet is vitally important.

I asked if Niall thought it was important that people who didn’t necessarily support one particular party still got to hear its views, even if they weren’t ever going to vote for them?

(Niall) I think it’s vitally important and I think we’re having in East Belfast in relation to Sinn Féin a small success where that’s concerned. It’s just a great shame that we’ve lost the East Belfast Herald as a resource in that part of the city because I do think it gave a platform to everyone and a very good platform. And certainly even from my own perspective, it wasn’t even just that people were allowed to see my coupon or get to get to associate a name with a party – even if it’s a very difficult to pronounce name for some people.

We’d some good engagement through the letter pages. I know they allowed me a platform piece after the trouble at the end of August and stuff and there was a bit of interaction. And what I found then when I went into those meetings I was talking to you about earlier on and the engagement with loyalist working class people and with the Protestant churches is that “but I saw what you wrote in the East Belfast Herald and I disagree with that” and I do think it’s important that at the very least they’re getting it from the horse’s mouth as opposed to through what some other person in a political party might be telling them they’re saying.

Lastly, I asked what had attracted Niall into the world of politics? (In the background you’ll hear the guys around us in the Waterfront dismantling tables and stacking chairs from a previous event.)

(Niall) Well I’m from a political family in a sense. My parents were both republican activists. They were both imprisoned for their politics. But aside from that, aside from being a traditional republican family as such, I think it’s inevitable that as a child growing up in an area like the Short Strand, you begin to ask questions.

You begin to ask why there’s walls around your area? You begin to ask why you have to pass through three checkpoints to go to school in the morning because we got a bus every morning from East Belfast over to the Shaws Road? I attended an Irish language school over on Shaws Road. And Jesus we were harrished every morning. There were school bags emptied, parents who were volunteering on the bus trailed off the bus …

So you start to lobby and work for those issues. And I imagined away at the very start, we’re lucky over there that we have such a strong community sector and community lobby. It was something that very much appealed to me to get involved with. Certainly the events of 2001 and 2002 around the trouble that happened politicised me in quite a sharp way. But I’ve always had republican politics and as a result of that I’ve always wanted to be involved in broader politics, and that does sound a bit clichéd, but to try and do a bit for your community.

A big thank you to Niall, both for the interview and for his patience waiting for it to make it onto the blog. I'm heading down to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin in the morning to finish the our of party conferences. So there'll be a bit more perspective on Sinn Féin’s current plans and thinking, as well as how their conference planning and execution compares to other local parties.

Some video footage of the interview will be added in a day or two.

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