Northern Ireland

Niall Ó Donnghaile's year in mayoral chains

In the spring of 2011 Belfast City Council elected its youngest ever Lord Mayor, 26-year-old Sinn Fein councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile.

Filmmaker Richard Weller, who was given complete behind-the-scenes access to the young mayor throughout a hugely important year for the city, recalls a momentous 12 months.

Image caption At 25, Niall Ó Donnghaile was Belfast's youngest ever Lord Mayor

Following Niall Ó Donnghaile, the latest Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, during his year in office was always going to be a fascinating experience.

With events like the MTV's EMA Awards and the Titanic centenary celebrations, 2011/2012 was going to be a massive year for the city and any mayor would have been under close scrutiny.

The Lord Mayor is an ambassador for Belfast and now a 25-year-old Sinn Fein press officer with no previous experience of public office was stepping up to the plate.

I am not a political journalist. I'm more used to overseeing Nick Hewer do battle with Northern Ireland's farming community on The Farm Fixer.

However, the personal story interested me, the motivation of someone so young to put themselves in that position.


There were so many official duties it was often hard to get a moment alone with him, or get any downtime.

We took to hanging out in his office, travelling with him in the mayoral car and every so often we would get the moment where we glimpsed the real person behind the public face.

The night of the MTV was a good example as he ran up to girls he knew from the Short Strand and showed them pictures of Justin Bieber on his phone.

This was not a politician but a young man excited about a big night out.

Travelling with him to the opening of the Titanic centre was another occasion, in an hour he would give a speech in a typically smooth manner but as he fingered his notes in the car he was clearly nervous, only too aware that this would be the biggest speech of his political career.

The more we filmed with Niall the more it became clear that this was not going to be about the battle to juggle two lives - the traditional young man pursuits of clubbing and X box versus the more serious work of an up and coming politician.

Politics and public service were the focus of just about everything in Niall's life and I was going to have to dig deeper.


Image caption Being a mayor of all of Belfast 'was always a genuine struggle'

I am English and although I have lived and brought up a family here for seven years, I was initially worried that my nationality might be a barrier.

I wondered if I lacked the shorthand knowledge of all the subtle sensibilities that go underneath so much of the politics here.

After a while though I began to view my ignorance as a strength. I was not afraid to question assumptions because I was unaware of the assumptions in the first place and my rudimentary grasp of Northern Ireland politics allowed me to ask the questions other people are not stupid enough to ask.

What I witnessed with Niall was a genuine struggle to be a mayor for all of Belfast and reach out to every community but still stay true to his fundamental principles and beliefs.

Add to this the views of the Sinn Fein supporters he had been elected to represent and his opposition in the City Hall, that challenged his republicanism at every turn, and the stresses he was under became all too apparent.

This struggle became very public after his decision to ask someone else to present a Duke of Edinburgh Award to a young Army cadet.

A few days later, with opponents calling for his resignation, he prepared for the monthly council meeting.


He was bullish going into the council chamber, quoting Gandhi before he went in but he squirmed in his mayoral throne as unionist councillors lined up to lambast him.

I started the year wondering if a young mayor growing up after the worst of the Troubles might be able to throw away all the baggage and help unite the city.

Covering events like Remembrance and Easter Sunday made me realise that divisions run much deeper.

But I did find grounds for optimism. Behind all the posturing I had a sense that there was a genuine desire on all sides to work together for the greater good.

Behind the scenes I filmed Niall joking with the deputy mayor Ruth Paterson, who had appeared to snub him in the early days of his tenure, and bonding with the current Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson.

On countless visits to community groups right across Belfast he was always warmly received.

Against the odds, a year with Niall turned out to be a life-affirming experience.

The Belfast Mayor - A Year in Chains is on BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday 5 November 5 at 22.35 GMT.

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