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Belfast Deputy Mayor launches: Unheard Voices

19 August, 2004


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Recently elected Deputy Mayor of Belfast Joe O‚Donnell speaking this morning, to an invited audience of community groups and representative organisations, said that he would be guided in his year in office by a desire to give a platform to those in this city from various backgrounds, who are doing sterling work yet often their "voices are not heard".

He said:

"I am deeply honoured and proud to have been elected as Belfast's Deputy Mayor.

I am mindful of the high standards that the citizens of Belfast expect from their elected representatives and the civic responsibilities that go with the position of Deputy Mayor.

In my year of office I intend to represent all the people of Belfast regardless of class, creed or ethnic origin and to fulfil this role to the best of my ability.

Belfast is a city emerging from years of conflict and we are dealing with a long legacy of division.

This is the context within which I as Deputy Mayor will be working.

By facing into this reality it does not mean that I or anyone else with civic responsibility should lower our horizons or fail to push out the boundaries to meet people at the point where they live their day to day lives.

I have a duty of office to do this and I can assure you I will do it.

However I would like my year in office to be marked by the representation I make on behalf of the people who work very hard for this city yet are seldom recognised.

The theme of my speech today is "Unheard Voices". I deliberately chose that theme because I want those people who live in this space to hear what I have to say to them and on their behalf, to others of influence in Belfast.

I know only to well what it is like to be part of a community whose voice is not heard. I grew up in the Short Strand in East Belfast. The people of that area have lived an isolated existence for many, many years. They like many others in our city who live in interfaces (regardless of whatever religious background they come from) want and need their quality of life to improve.

Recently I launched a public initiative in East Belfast with David Ervine, in an attempt not only to address the issues which affect cross community violence at interfaces but also the many social, environmental and economic problems that continue to afflict these areas.

I will vigorously pursue that issue over my term in office and beyond.

The Short Strand community is vibrant, multi-talented and has made a great contribution to the life of Belfast, yet they have received little recognition.

There are many other vibrant and multi-talented communities who make a great contribution to everyday life in Belfast yet receive little or no recognition. I believe this can be said of the elderly, the disabled, the many ethnic peoples, gay people, homeless, women, travellers, those living in working class unionist and nationalist areas and those who work in the community and voluntary sector.

When all of these groups are taken together they make up a considerable portion of the people of Belfast.

Yet rarely do they receive due recognition beyond the group they are working in.

Belfast City Council should take the necessary steps to recognise this work.

I believe they have gone some way in doing so, the council's equality officer is already involved in the process of setting up an Equality Consultation Forum which will involve most of the section 75 groups I have mentioned. It will initially meet on a quarterly basis and then bi-annually as required. I will work with other councillors and parties to ensure that this becomes adopted policy, as a matter of urgency.

I also think the City Council should formally acknowledge the work of these groups by making an annual Council award for services rendered.

Again the Council has gone some way to addressing this issue with a report due to go to the good relations steering panel next month. I will do my best to persuade the Good Relations Committee that the nominations should come from the Equality Forum.

The purpose behind the approach I am taking as Deputy Mayor is to validate the work that is being done everyday of the week across this city but it is unseen except by those directly involved.

This situation has to end and I believe that those like myself with civic responsibility have to help bring about the required change.

I believe Belfast City Council should see this area of work as central to its year long programme.

I have outlined what I think Belfast City Council should do to promote the voices of those who I have described as 'unheard'.

There are others who can also help put substance to this idea.

We live in a media age. The media has a responsibility to reflect the lives of the people of Belfast in all its diversity.

I believe it would help if we saw on television, heard on radio or read in the newspapers about:

The elderly talking about their contribution to this city on daily and with a lifetime of experience to draw on.

The people from the many ethnic communities in our city describing the great diversity of history, culture and economic benefit that they bring to society.

Travellers and the struggle they face just to survive because they have chosen an alternative lifestyle.

Working class people from Sandy Row, Short Strand, Tigers Bay, Newtownards Road, and Lower Falls telling us why they are not enjoying the economic benefits of a growing city economy.

The gay community on their struggle to be recognised for the contribution that they make in many walks of life.

In conclusion I want to reaffirm that I will use my term in office to engage and connect on a regular and informal basis, with the many groups and organisations that I have already outlined.

I give an understanding that I will do my very best to persuade the relevant council committees to take action and that I will pursue ways in which the council can deliver on their needs.

I also hope that others with responsibility, use that responsibility to ensure that we hear and see the faces behind the 'Unheard Voices" ENDS

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