Funny how day by day nothing changes, then you look back…
I had the great privilege on Saturday of chatting live on air for 45 minutes with New York-based Irish Radio Network presenter Adrian Flannelly who really is the Dean of Irish American broadcasting.
Among our topics for discussion was this week’s (Thursday-Friday 7-8 June) New York-New Belfast Conference in the Big Apple.
But we also talked about the transformation Belfast is undergoing.
It’s been four years since Adrian last visited us in Belfast but the pace of progress, despite all the obstacles, hasn’t slowed — as evidenced this month by the opening of three new hotels.
Given our political stasis, some might think that change has stalled. Far from it, as evidenced by the 15,000-strong march and rally for marriage equality in the city on Saturday (below). You think voices for change have been silenced? Not a bit of it, as I found when I tried to find a corner of City Hall to conduct my interview only to have the cheers of the marriage equality demonstrators provide background atmospherics for Adrian’s audience.
I also witnessed positive change when I visited the Roma church in my South Belfast constituency yesterday to assure parishioners I would fight to overturn government denial of funding and services to their popular and much-needed Roma Community Centre. I sensed a great resolve among the Roma not to be bullied by bureaucrats.
I met breadwinners and parents who are relishing the many opportunities Belfast has brought them over the past decade — the men among the community enjoy almost full employment in companies such as MoyPark and Mash Direct as well as in their own small businesses. As taxpayers and contributors to the local economy, they refuse to be treated unjustly just because they are immigrants. There’s a new-found determination among the Roma which will be familiar to anyone who has studied the Irish immigrant experience in the US.
The Roma of Belfast are proud EU citizens and determined to ensure they continue to be treated as first-class citizens post-Brexit. And, of course, as residents of the North, they enjoy a special status above that of their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. Their children born in Belfast are Irish citizens and the Irish Government as well as the EU have made a solemn pledge to protect their rights under the terms of the British exit from Europe.
When I was growing up in troubled Belfast, the only people of colour I saw were wearing British Army uniforms and as for gays and lesbians, they were, sadly, invisible. A thousand flowers have bloomed since those bleak days.
As that famed Belfast author — much-beloved by Christians — CS Lewis observed: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different.” Amin! as they called out in the Roma church today.