Address at launch of South Belfast Westminster Election Campaign
Tá fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh go dtí an cruinniú seo le tús a chur le feachtas a chuirfidh cor i scéal na cathrach seo.
As community leaders in South Belfast, you and I both know that it’s time to face up to the fact that there is a vacuum of leadership in South Belfast. I want to start a discussion tonight about how my vision for a new South Belfast can fill that vacuum. And when the talking here is done, I want to invite the MP for South Belfast to meet me in public forum to debate our competing agendas for this constituency.
I want you to make me MP for South Belfast so that I can be a Champion of Change.
I will make job creation and investment my priorites because it is unacceptable to me that 20 per cent of our young people should be without work.
For over 20 years my focus has been on setting up businesses at the heart of communities. I want now to take that experience and put it to work for all the people of South Belfast.
I took on the post of Digital Champion for the South Belfast Partnership Board because I believe the jobs of the future lie in the technology sector.
As MP, I would insist on the development of the rest of the Gasworks site, which has lain idle for almost 20 years, to meet the demand for tech offices, create leisure space for the local community and provide much-needed housing. Deloitte’s new technology arm employs 130 computer engineers but their plans to increase to 700 workers by 2017 could be accommodated on the revitalised Gasworks site. Add to that Concentrix moving into new premises in the old Maysfield site with plans to add another 1,000 workers and AllState’s ambition to occupy a site behind Maysfield and you have a transformational arc of tech companies along the riverfront.
When I travel to bring investment to Belfast — and for three days last week I was trumpeting our successes in Toronto, New York and Boston — I can boast that we have a city on the rise. When I signed a sister city agreement last May with Boston, the capital of Irish America, I was confident that this transatlantic relationship could be a gamechanger for Belfast. I met up with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh last Thursday and he assured me he is full-speed ahead on our sister city partnership.
South Belfast has countless treasures on which we can build prosperity.
With the Lyric Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre and Ulster Museum, all reminagined with Sinn Féin ministerial and Council support, we have a platform on which to make the arts the engine of transformation in our society.
I am proud of the fact that when elected to Belfast City Council in 2011, I initiated a new £900000 Arts Flagship Fund under which the Council has now made its biggest-ever grants to arts groups.
But there is more to do because while we managed to save the Ulster Orchestra, the arts require support commensurate with their contribution to our community. And anyone who doubts the ability of the arts to lift a city has only to look at the powerful impact on Belfast when, with the help of that great public servant Roisin McDonough of the Arts Council, I appointed Belfast’s first-ever Poet Laureate Sinéad Morrissey.
When I went into Council, I pledged to reverse the neglect of the Lagan which should be at the very heart of this vibrant city. For 60 years, the Lagan has been ignored but I am pleased to say that its rebirth begins now. For Sinn Féin in City Hall has confirmed its backing for a £4.7m investment into the Lagan canal which will see the river transformed from the city centre to a new visitor centre at the Stranmillis Weir.
I salute the entrepreneurs and business leaders here tonight. You are the heartbeat of this constituency. That’s why I ensured that more funds were delivered to local traders groups, such as those on the Lisburn Road, Finaghy, Stranmillis and Ormeau, during my tenure in City Hall than ever before. In one year alone, we allocated £250,000 to traders groups to help then weather the economic storm. I initiated Belfast Restaurant Week in 2012 because I wanted to build on the outstanding dedication and success of our restaurateurs, each of them an employer and an entrepreneur.
In these times when we are faced with the obscene ideology of austerity, I affirm my determination to defend our public services.
You know that since 2011 the British have cut £1.5bn from our block grant thus preventing us from servicing all the need we see.
But you are also aware that we fought hard against the Tory blitz on the poor, holding up so-called Welfare Reform legislation for as long as we could and ensuring that the legislation now coming in is stripped off its most punitive aspects.
I will work hard to create jobs in South Belfast because I believe everyone is entitled to the dignity of work.
And if elected MP I will expect to be judged on my job creation record, but I can live with that because over the past two decades, I have created scores of jobs and am honoured to lead businesses in this city and in the US which employ over 50 people. (Always worries me etc…)
But the partner of job creation is community building. Peace and reconciliation are at the core of all I believe in. That’s why I was standing at the Cenotaph on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to pay respect to ALL those who died in the Great War when I was Lord Mayor. My politics are about addition and multiplication and not about division and subtraction. That’s why I ensured that within my first week in office I had made an official visit to Row to meet Jackie McDonald and community builders there.
I would provide more support to our sporting organisations who are doing more to change lives and bring our people together than many government programmes. I salute in particular the work of Harlequins, St George’s ABC, Rosario and Linfield FC as well as our GAA clubs Bredagh, Naomh Bríd, Carryduff and St Malachy’s. One of those clubs has an Alex Maskey stadium, it should be the boxing club but in fact it’s Harlequins which miraculously inherited the old Lord Mayor’s parade stand which was last held when Alex was mayor.
As you know I have a special grá for the Belfast Giants — not because I understand the rules of ice hockey, the way the team is playing of late I suspect they don’t understand the rules either — but because they have a positive impact on Belfast.
There are more bike commuters in South Belfast than anywhere else in the city and as a fair-weather cyclist (and that means exactly what it says on the tin), I’m delighted that the first-ever Ciclovia in Belfast – when we close our roads on a Sunday morning and give them back to the people — will follow a South Belfast route.
I will stand four-square behind my heroes in the faith communities such as Fitzroy Presbyterian and Cairnshill Methodist. Though I am not a person of faith, I recognise in the faith communities people who preach the gospel without using words. And if you want to know what that means, call into Common Grounds or Mornington or the Presbyterian International Meeting Point on the Lisburn Road any lunchtime and join the 100 people in need from around the world who find friendship and sustenance there.
In fact, it was in my desire to learn from the faith communities that I broke the mould as mayor by appointing nine chaplains to serve the city and to build the peace.
This is a city which needs to take down walls and put up bridges. Let’s take a lead from Fitzroy Presbyterian who showed us the way when it formed the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship in the darkest of all years 1981.
There is more cultural diversity in South Belfast than anywhere else in the city and that’s a plus for us. That’s why I am supporting proposals to build a new Islamic Cultural Centre in South Belfast which will sustain our vibrant and generous Muslim community. I reject those who try to demonise our Muslim community and remind the bigots that everytime I meet the trustees of the Islamic Centre, I’m the only one at the table without a postgraduate degree. Like our African, Filipino and Polish minorities, they have given a tremendous amount to Belfast for which we are grateful.
No-one does more to reach out compassionately to our new Belfast communities than Shaftesbury Recreation Centre and I pledge to channel more resources to their efforts. On my last day in mayoral office I launched the Compassionate City Belfast charter because I believe that all are entitled to social justice. In recent months, I have been working to bring Syrian refugees to Belfast in response to an appeal from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Britain has refused to take any refugees but this week, I was pleased to hear the deputy First Minister confirm to me in the Assembly the commitment of the Executive to negotiate with the Home Secretary so that we can provide succour to those suffering in the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time. I ask everyone here to ensure the Syrian refugees are welcomed with open arms.
I believe in the power of education to transform lives and am committed to ensuring our schools and institutions of learning get the support they need. I was pleased that between draft and final budgets, we managed to secure an extra £63m for our schools and establish a new £500m fund for shared and integrated education.
We are blessed with great schools right across this constituency; schools which have been bolstered by a succession of Sinn Féin education ministers. I want to single out an inspirational school which faces great challenges: Malone Integrated College.
As a republican, I believe firmly that the test of our education system is how it ensures the less well-off fulfill their full potential. Malone College has a strong intake of ethnic minority pupils, some recently arrived in the city. In fact, its pupils speak 26 different languages. It is also the school which serves youngsters who hail from some of the hardest-pressed areas of our constituency such as Donegal Pass and the Village. I visited Malone College two weeks ago and met the Principal Maire Thompson and her staff. I was deeply impressed by their dedication and by their improving performance. I have pledged to back plans to deliver a newbuild to Malone Integrated so that it can continue to be a powerhouse of ambition and achievement.
Last year, the Irish medium school Scoil an Droichid received the greenlight from Minister O’Dowd to build new premises, ushering in a new era of Irish language promotion in South Belfast. On Tuesday Forge Integrated Primary received news from the minister that it would be permitted to expand its intake to grow to 450 pupils. And last month, I had the opportunity to visit the centre of excellence which is Rathmore Grammar School. I congratulated Principal Therese Hamilton on her state-of-the-art new school and she suggested part of the credit should go Martin McGuinness who as Minister of Education delivered a new school for Rathmore and then evened things up by providing a new school for their rivals in Aquinas as well. I note that Minister John O’Dowd has continued that even-handed approach and included Methody College in a £170m package of new build and refurbishment projects across the North last June.
At the beating heart of our constituency is Queen’s University. With an annual budget of around £280m, over 17,000 students and 3,700 staff, it has the power to drive forward the entire city. I congratulate the new Vice Chancellor Paddy Johnston on his appointment and am thrilled by his pledge to make civic uplift part of the university’s core mission — that’s a promise I will hold Queen’s to.
When I make a promise to deliver, I do so in the knowledge that I can truly make a difference because I have the resolute backing of a Sinn Féin team across this island which is fired-up and focused on progress and prosperity.
When I entered Belfast City Hall in 1987, I was put out of my first meeting after ten minutes. I was banned from committees, forbidden to enter the Lord Mayor’s parlour and forced to wear a flak jacket to meetings. Back then there was but a handful of Sinn Féin councillors. Today, Sinn Féin with 19 seats is by far the biggest party on the new supercouncil and is carrying forward a progressive agenda of delivery. As MP, I would have the backing of that Sinn Féin team in order to make a difference for you.
In the Assembly Sinn Féin has 29 seats and five ministerial positions on the Executive. We used that mandate to carry through the Stormont House Agreement which moved the peace process forward while delivering a budget which will grow the economy and protect the vulnerable. As MP, I would have the unwavering support of that Sinn Féin team at Stormont to deliver for this community.
In the Dáil, Sinn Féin is assailing the austerity policies of the coalition government and no-one is leading that charge more courageously than Mary-Lou McDonald. With discussions starting on forming a left alliance, Sinn Féin may be on the cusp of entering a progressive government in the South.
And in Europe, with four MEPS representing every constituency in the country from Malin Head to Mizen Head, the Sinn Féin voice is being raised for a fairer EU.
There is much work to do and Sinn Féin now has the team at every level to ensure it gets done now.
If you do me the honour of electing me as MP for South Belfast, I pledge to deliver in robust fashion for this constituency. So when our opponents say a vote for Sinn Féin won’t get results, ask them to put their candidate’s record against my record. Ask them to put their MP’s record against the record of the Sinn Féin MPs.
If they say you can only get results by sitting in Westminster ask them then how come the sitting MP hasn’t delivered results.
I will deliver like the MP for West Tyrone, Pat Doherty who secured the transfer of Lisanelly British Army Base in Omagh for a £150m shared educational campus.
I will deliver like the MP for West Belfast, Paul Maskey who this week helped save St Mary’s and Stranmillis University Colleges, securing 330 well-paid jobs and ensuring a bright future for 2,000 students.
They are Sinn Féin MPs who deliver despite the fact that they don’t sit in Westminster.
In short, as Mandela says, Let your choices reflect your hopes not your fears as Mandela said.
The challenge in South Belfast is great but so too is the opportunity. We can be part of a seachange in politics and in civic life. For too long, same old, same old has held sway in South Belfast. I have been accused of many things but never of same old, same old.
So as someone who believes passionately in creating a beloved community in which all are respected, I invite you to make a wise investment with the franchise at the Westminster election in May by putting your X beside the name Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. This is investment on which, I guarantee, you will get a return many times over.
I leave you with this call to action: Invest in New Belfast, build New Belfast, Boost New Belfast, Vote New Belfast.