Students of Belfast politics know that the moment when the city moved to a forward trajectory was the moment unionists had to share power with the rest of us.
That moved Belfast City Hall from a bastion of bigotry in the eighties — I used to wear a flak jacket to attend meetings there in days of utter darkness, division and despair for all our people — to a beacon of bridge-building in 2017.
It’s been a long and torturous journey but I sense those first steps towards the light of equality, tolerance and peacemaking at Stormont with the news that Thursday’s election results mean that, for the first time in a century, unionists no longer hold a majority of the seats in Stormont. This is epoch-making stuff.
In the last Assembly, unionists held 56 seats out of 108.
In this reduced 90-seat Assembly, the DUP, TUV and UUP hold just 39. The slimmed-down Assembly contains just 90 seats, down from 108. Of that number, 16 were lost by unionists. This is the best-ever election for Sinn Féin – with almost 225,000 votes, just 1,000 behind the DUP — the worst-ever for unionists.
The DUP no longer have the 30 votes needed to persecute minorities by use of the ‘petition of concern’ mechanism.
And that means we have a golden opportunity to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’.
Yes to diversity. Yes to the gift of an Irish Language Act. Yes to marriage equality. Yes to integrity in all our governmental affairs. Yes to parity of esteem. Yes to special status in the European Union post-Brexit. And, most of all, yes to a unified and reconciled Ireland which puts the interests of all people first, regardless of their colour or where they worship or who they love.
A new day dawning which will require more work than ever from all of us whether in Ireland or beyond — with a special role, undoubtedly, for Irish America.
I came in, as the Yanks say, at the top of the ticket.
On the first count, I bust the quota and was declared elected, scoring the highest-ever vote for Sinn Féin in South Belfast — by some distance. In the space of ten months, our vote increased by over 2,000 votes.
Thanks for that goes to all those who believe in a new Belfast: the peace-loving nationalists of South Belfast who refused to allow narrowminded extremists in the DUP turn back the clock to 1969; businessmen and businesswomen who really believe we can create a prosperous and shared society; a United Nations of ethnic minorities who understand that in diversity is strength — with a special go raibh maith agat to the Roma, Bangladeshi, Fillipino, Indian and Islamic communities; LGBT citizens who believe Belfast needs more, not less, love; and champions of the faith communities who believe the Sermon on the Mount is the boldest political manifesto ever-written.
I also take my hat off to the tireless Sinn Féin team in the constituency who hit the streets to win over voters, one doorstep at a time. It truly was a honour to be their candidate and to represent people of vision and dedication. (My congratulations to the other candidates returned in South Belfast and commiserations to those who lost out.)
My pledge is to work to deliver on the vision of a new Belfast that is being demanded not just by Sinn Féin voters but also by those who voted for the SDLP, Alliance and Green Party. And, indeed, by the many Ulster Unionists who decided to transfer to (and return) nationalist candidates rather than bolster the fading fortunes of the DUP.