New faces challenging North’s polarised political orthodoxy
Analysis: Victorious NI21 and socialist candidates claim change is afoot
While the dreary steeples issues of Orange and Green dominated the European and local elections in Northern Ireland as usual, there were some little shifts, a few minor cracks in the façades of those old imposing structures, and some new faces.
Take Johnny McCarthy, for instance, who was the sole success of NI21’s calamitous election campaign, taking a seat in the new council of Lisburn and Castlereagh.
A writer and blogger, he has also performed in comedy venues such as the Empire in Belfast and the International in Dublin. “I am a comedian but working on the standup,” is one of his opening gags.
And it’s a cracker because as a spina bifida sufferer he’s been wheelchair bound from childhood. McCarthy will speak on disability matters when required, he says, but his main focus is on general local issues, and is itching to get stuck into the work.
“I’ve taken so many media calls but what I would really love is for someone to ring me asking me to fix their pavement. I can’t wait to get stuck into the nitty gritty of council work,” he says.
Aged 24 and from Lambeg just outside Lisburn, he says he comes from a nationalist background - his uncle is Eamon Martin, who will be the next Catholic primate of all-Ireland when Cardinal Seán Brady stands down - but sees himself as Northern Irish and just isn’t interested in the constitutional disputes. “We need to stop looking to Westminster or Dublin and focus on Northern Ireland.”
Regardless of the ructions over NI21, he believes the party has a future. He just wants to get things done. “I have never been held back by my disability. If I can’t get in the front door I’ll get in the back door. I will always find a way to do things as best I can.”
Meanwhile, there were scenes of jubilation across in Derry after the victory of independent candidate Darren Pio O’Reilly. In a surprise result, the youth co-ordinator (27) was elected on the first count in the Foyleside district with 1,091 first preference votes.
The scale of O’Reilly’s victory took observers by surprise, particulary as he polled ahead of Sinn Féin. There was a clear air of triumph amongst a crowd that gathered at Creggan strips on Saturday evening to celebrate his election and that of two other independent candidates, Gary Donnelly, a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, and Dee Quigley.
The winning candidates and their supporters took part in a “victory cavalcade” through the city with tricolours fluttering out of their cars. The beeping horns became particularly loud as they passed Derry police station.
O’Reilly says he would have been happier to have had “red flags” flying but certain realities make political life that bit more “complicated”. He too says he favours an alternative form of politics.
The father of one from Rosemount has won widespread praise for his work within one of the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland, an area that has earned notoriety in recent years for appointment shootings whereby parents are instructed to bring their teenagers to be shot by dissidents as a warning against “anti social behaviour”.
He is building a reputation as a person able to communicate - and negotiate - with teenagers, their families, dissidents and the authorities.
Last year, he was invited to the White House to showcase his work. His decision to run came after some locals asked him. “ I didn’t have a notion to stand. They had a meeting behind my back and the community decided that they had to have a candidate.”
Gerry Carroll, who won People Before Profit’s single council seat in Northern Ireland, insists he is neither a nationalist nor a unionist. “I am a socialist.”
The new Belfast City Council member speaks of Northern Ireland’s “great legacy of socialism” which was “forced out” by sectarian politics.
The Belfast Agreement consolidated this by producing a political landscape “more sectarian’ than ever, Carroll claims, claiming that People before Profit were the “only party to canvass both the Shankhill and Falls Road”.
According to Carroll, change is imminent. “There is great anger at the doors. People feel let down by the cuts imposed by Sinn Féin and DUP. The only real option is for the working classes to unite.”
Carroll, a 27-year-old former president of the University of Ulster student union, won a seat in the Black Mountain ward in West Belfast ahead of the SDLP . He thinks there is scope for his party to attract the middle class vote too. “It’s ultimately about the 99 per cent .”
Such change may not be as rapid in Belfast City Hall. Carroll says he was shown around on Tuesday and the nationalist and unionist areas were pointed out to him. This was the only seating available.
“ There is no space for a socialist,” he says. “Even the seating plan is sectarian.”