Friday Update- 19/02/21

Happy Friday!

This week started with Boris Johnson suggesting we build a tunnel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Connectivity is important, but as my colleague Cllr Stephen Donnelly pointed out if we’re talking about new infrastructure we could do with some better roads in Northern Ireland first please. Plus it’s getting very tiring that every time there’s an issue with Brexit Boris Johnson (to borrow a particularly graphic phrase from Naomi Long) “dangles this umbilical chord”.

On Tuesday Paul Givan tabled a Private Members Bill in the Assembly to amend abortion law with the intention to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities. As it was the first stage of the bill there was no debate. I’ve been campaigning on reproductive rights for a decade and I know that those on both sides of the argument hold sincere and deeply held views, but for me given every pregnancy – and every woman – is different, the ultimate decision has to be made by the woman and her doctor. BBC has a good timeline on abortion law in Northern Ireland, which you can read here.

If you didn’t get the chance to watch the Spotlight Documentary on Covid and Hardship, please do. Thirty minutes of difficult viewing – but so important we all keep talking about the reality of poverty, and what is being done to address it. The destitution, the stigma, the lack of hope – it’s heartbreaking, and it’s also completely unacceptable. I have so much admiration for the people who shared their story, and so angry they had to. You can watch it on i-player here.

There have been definite signs of hope this week too however: from the NASA rover landing on Mars to the slightly smaller scale Lagan Gateway Bridge going in today (see it here). But for me the most joyful news was that a constituent who hasn’t seen her father for 51 weeks will be visiting him in his Care Home today.


This week I had Licensing and Planning Committee meetings, several meetings with the Alliance Party Belfast Council Group over the report into how Council handled the Bobby Storey Funeral (you can read our press release here) and a great meeting with the Alliance Women’s Network. We set the Network up to address women’s policy issues and increase female representation, but it’s also become a wonderful support network. I also had a brilliant meeting on an issue I’m very passionate about, but can’t tell you about… yet! Otherwise been busy with the usual casework issues, and as ever any issues or services not working for you, please get in touch:


It was a tough call between all the GenZ Vs Millenial content… but in the end this one won (you can see the thread here -thank you to my friend Claire for sharing)

Hope you all have a lovely weekend & I’ll be back with another update next Friday,




The drive way was exactly as I remembered – albeit a little overgrown. There was a hut by the gate and a woman emerged, rubbing her eyes. It was the holidays but the now dilapidated buildings gave the impression the school had been closed for many years. The driver spoke to her in Shona, gesturing at me – she went to school here, she wants to take a look. She eyed me suspiciously, and then the gate was opened.

It felt like a dream. Seventeen years since I had left and so much had changed. My parents had moved here so their children would grow up free from the shadows of troubles, and they were inspired by the newly independent Zimbabwe. My mother (the daughter of anti-apartheid activists) was seduced partly by its proximity to South Africa, but mainly by the political hope the new country offered.

My boyfriend had planned this, he wanted to leave me back he joked. And here we were now – driving slowly through the school. So much I hadn’t realised had been tucked away in my mind, snippets of conversations, faces l thought forgotten, coming to the fore with force, almost winding me. That was the swimming pool I told him – the once white painted walls had sparkled in the sun, but not anymore.

There was the hockey field. I had been the captain, not due to skill (I never scored a goal in my life) but it was an elected role and I was chosen after I bought everyone on the team sweets. Destined for politics my mum would smile. Every single afternoon we would do sport, everyone hated athletics “A little bit of pain never killed anyone” our safari-suit wearing headmaster would bellow, as he chased us down the red dirt cross-country roads on his motorbike. Pain may not kill you, but we would learn other things could.

“Netsai’s mum died” my friend had said one afternoon, when we were sitting on the side of the hockey field. Bonded by our mothers’ willingness to write notes to get us out of sport.

“How?” I asked


Evil spirits that I didn’t really believe in – but wouldn’t say said out loud just in case they were listening. So I nodded.

I can’t remember when the new word “war veterans” entered our vocabulary, but it was round about the time N’s dad started carrying a gun. There were squatters on their farm and she was scared. And not long after that Mr Stevens, whose kids went to the school, was shot dead by a gang of men. They were retaliating after his workers had chased them off his farm.

We drove past the old sanatorium which now had weeds growing from the window. The san was the place you went for muti, to be made better. I remembered how when it rained the matrons made us do cross-country in our swimming costumes so our sports kit wouldn’t get mouldy. I would often come down with something very serious on days like that, and would escape to the san with a book hidden in my jumper. I discovered the true happiness of being tucked up with a book and a cup of cocoa in a high hospital bed, listening to the rain thunder down upon a metal roof – knowing your classmates were running. Outside. In their swimming costumes.

Opposite the san, the swings had gone but the old tree which had claimed countless bones stood strong – the only thing which had.

I wanted to show him the old school hall.

The doors were all closed but here the latch had worn and a sharp tug set it free. The red velvet curtains on the stage were stained and frayed, a hole in the ceiling directed a shaft of light on the floor – once gleaming and polished, it was now covered in dust. The very same portrait of President Robert Mugabe hung at the back of the room and I remembered how we sang the national anthem every morning in this hall.

I had lost the school spelling bee to Cara Stockil on that stage, because I couldn’t spell bicycle.

We used to have Christian Union every Tuesday night here. When I started boarding in Grade 7, I told the matron I couldn’t go to Christian Union because my family didn’t believe in God. So she called for the teacher in charge, who called for the deputy headmistress, who called for the headmaster. It was agreed I either go to bed at 7pm when everyone went to Christian Union, or I go with them. I boycotted it for one week. But the next morning heard my boyfriend (who I had never actually spoken to) had asked where I was. So I caved. The next week I got to play the leper, who touches Jesus’ robes and gets cured, and everyone applauded – from then on every Tuesday at 7pm I was a committed Christian.

Some evenings we would sneak out of prep to play tennis before the sun set. In Zimbabwe – where corporal punishment was very much still a thing – rules were not made to be broken; but mitching homework for sport was never frowned upon. The headmaster’s house overlooked the courts, and Mr Botha who was sitting on his veranda drinking a beer called out “How’s your mum Kate?” – he knew it was just the two of us now. “Good sir” I said, “she’s coming to visit tomorrow afternoon if she gets fuel” – “Don’t hold your breath” was his response. There had been shortages for months. On hearing reports of petrol Lorries arriving in Marondera, my mother drove to town on the last of her tank. She waited for two hours in a queue and when she got to the front was told there was none left. Returning home she learned there was a power cut, so in a dark empty house she reached for the phone – just to hear the voice of another human being – and she found the line was dead. Getting into bed with a bottle of gin she decided it was time for us to go.

“They’re waiting for us” He said to me and I came back into the moment. How strange, I thought, to be here in my old world, with him. And now it was time to go.

I had been excited to go – to see my new life. To have family. But as the years passed I would occasionally catch the sweet scent of the Jacaranda trees in bloom, or feel burning gravel under my feet. I would remember nights in the dormitory when we whispered about boys from under our counterpanes and snuck out into the courtyard to gaze at the stars. I would remember the morning haze of the Chimanimani Mountains, canoeing down the Zambezi. I would remember the other nights when our whispers turned to worry – fears of the future. The rumours and tension that had slowly eased their way into our integrated world unnoticed – and with their arrival taken the last moments of our childhood. Some days the sadness of the home I had lost would overcome me. And I would feel broken.

Riverdale House was a misleading name for the grey tower block located on the Seymour hill estate. I had imagined a cottage and fields with sheep. When we arrived I looked at my mum and she tried to smile reassuringly. But we both knew what the other was thinking. This wasn’t home. The red, white and blue painted curb stones were not in fact representative of a large French community living in Dunmurry. A boy with acne who got the school bus asked me if I wanted to go into the forest with him and his friends, I did not. I watched every Doris Day film that showed on channel 4 that summer, too afraid to venture beyond the balcony of the 12th floor. No adventures wanted here. When the 90 year old arsonist from the building opposite set fire to Riverdale for the second time my mum decided, once again, enough was enough. We moved to Sunnyside Street where a Georgian piano player lived next door and when she practiced we imagined ourselves through time and place, sitting on the veranda as dusk settled, listening to my sister play.

I had escaped to London with no intention of returning to Belfast. But each time I came back to visit my mum I felt relieved. It turns out that I missed her, that I wasn’t as cosmopolitan as I hoped and really, I just wasn’t very good with change. So I moved back, unsure of who I really was or where I really belonged. In that emptiness came the space I needed to make sense of my life, to find direction. I learnt to be grateful for my weird, magical, African childhood. I began to see that the trauma of leaving, was nothing like that of classmates – who didn’t have the socio-economic privilege I had – who were denied that opportunity; who had to stay. I had witnessed the brutality of inequality, as my grandparents had; I had seen the devastation that is borne from the ashes of democracy. I knew that no good comes from division in any part of the world and I wanted to do something that mattered. And so I went and found it, and along the way I also found a Fermanagh boy with blue eyes who made me laugh and feel safe. And I thought maybe change is not so bad after all.

That evening as we sat on a kopje, sun setting over the land where I was born I acknowledged the profound effect leaving here had had on my life, it had taken almost two decades, but piece by piece I had come back. So when he asked me… I said yes. And in that moment I knew, I was home.







Some thoughts on the Alliance surge

I got involved with Alliance in December 2012 as an act of solidarity. The Party was under attack, not over the removal of a flag from City Hall, but over an election in East Belfast – and I was angry. Naomi Long had the audacity to win her Westminster seat from Peter Robinson in 2010, the retribution for which would last the best part of a decade. Most people would have crumbled, but Naomi Long is not most people.

In my seven years as an Alliance activist I have become accustomed to election campaigns, and to losing them.

The first election defeat I was involved in was the 2013 Mid Ulster by-election. I remember an SDLP activist (kindly) saying to me that he liked how we walked into that count like we stood a chance. We tallied furiously and cheered the loudest for our much respected candidate Eric Bullick when he increased our vote by 0.3%.

In 2014 my then boss Anna Lo was our EU candidate. Her personal views on the constitutional question had dominated headlines and many said that would be the end for Alliance, but in truth I think it served as a reminder that Alliance is genuinely a cross-community party. In the end Anna achieved our highest vote and we were elated, though at 7.1% of the vote we knew we still had a way to go to break the desired 10% barrier.

The next year – the 2015 Westminster election – was the one that really stung. After a particularly nasty campaign, Naomi lost her seat to the DUP’s Gavin Robinson (though she increased her vote by 4,000). His bitter and aggressive “5 Long years” speech stood out in stark contrast to the dignity and grace with which Naomi has become known for. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

In the 2016 Assembly election we kept our 8 MLAs, as was the case in the 2017 election (despite the Assembly having been reduced from 108 to 90 MLAs) – only this time Alliance seats in North Belfast and South Down were now within reach. It was then I realised that maybe things were changing.

With no functioning Assembly since 2017 and the cliff edge of Brexit looming; people are tired of scandal, self-interest, and political point scoring. For too long divisive, negative politics has dominated – and there doesn’t seem to be much to lose. So when a person like Naomi comes along – someone who is genuine, who speaks sense, and most importantly will work with anyone for the greater good (and is just that bit scrappy); it’s not difficult to see the appeal.

While Brexit and the absence of an Assembly undeniably contributed to our recent triumphs, the Alliance surge is not something that happened overnight. While Naomi is extremely likable and engaging (even her most dedicated trolls wished her well when she signed off social media to receive medical treatment), behind her is a pretty impressive team. Deputy Leader Stephen Farry – who is an actual genius (I have seen him engage in a conversation, analyse a policy document and play tetras all at the same time) – has been a reliable and trusted voice on Brexit. And because evidence-based policy is very much our thing, it means even if you don’t agree with an Alliance position, there’s integrity behind the decision making. The MLAs, their staff, and the small central team are dedicated and hard working – which are key ingredients to any success.

Mostly I believe that our strength lies in the fact that at the core of Alliance is a sense of inclusivity – which carries more campaign miles than fear mongering ever can. And while these elections are ones that will take a while to come down to earth from, we know we cannot be complacent. We face many serious challenges as a society, but for the first time in a long time it seems that those working towards the greater good were rewarded.

And there is endless hope in that.

Image may contain: 7 people, including John Blair, people smiling

Northern Ireland’s problem with racism

Northern Ireland has a problem with racism. I witnessed enough of it when I worked for Northern Ireland’s only ever ethnic minority MLA. The amount of abuse Anna Lo endured was staggering and we regularly dealt with constituents who had suffered similar treatment. This isn’t just anecdotal – there are figures to back it up: the results from the 2017 Life and Times Survey show high levels of intolerance towards people from minority ethnic communities.

More than half of people surveyed would not willingly accept a Muslim (52%) or an Irish Traveller (56%) if they became a relative through marriage. Almost half (47%) of people asked would not willingly accept a Muslim as a close friend; and a quarter (25%) of people would not willingly accept someone from an ethnic minority as a colleague at work.

Anna always used to say racism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. In a society which has in part been molded by segregation and suspicion, the continued distrust of outsiders is not just symptomatic of that which remains unresolved – it is also part of a worrying narrative in global politics.

In a city where PSNI figures show that racially-motivated crimes now exceed those connected to sectarianism, where seeing Confederate flags is not unusual (not to mention the previous Swastikas and KKK banner), where a functioning government is not in place to make much needed legislative changes, we know more needs to be done. It’s why any elected representative who puts out a leaflet which advocates “local homes for local people” is not just deeply disappointing, it’s actually dangerous. Politicians need to wake up to the racial prejudice that exists, not fuel or exploit it for political gain.

The Belfast Agenda states that “We are ambitious and inclusive. We have come together to set stretching goals that will create a better quality of life for all. We want sustainable success for the city and we want to make sure this success reaches everyone who lives here.” Electing local Councillors who are committed to this agenda, to making the city better for *everyone* who lives here, really shouldn’t be too much to ask.


Call-ins & carve-ups

When it looks like funding is being allocated on a ‘one for me, one for you’ basis, that’s a problem. It’s not always easy or popular to challenge these decisions, particularly if the area you represent is set to benefit – but it’s always the right thing to do. Ensuring openness and transparency should be an absolute baseline for any elected representative. So this week’s post is on the latest carve-up in City Hall – and for anyone interested – an explanation of the call-in process.

The ‘call-in’ exists so if you suspect a bad/shady decision has been taken at a Committee meeting Councillors can request that the decision be revisited. To do this you fill in a decision register (which we’re all emailed straight after the meetings), explaining clearly why you feel it should be called in – then you’ll need 8 other Councillors to sign it. This then goes to the Chief Executive and the Council will seek legal opinion. The legal opinion is circulated regardless of whether the solicitor or barrister think the call-in has merit, and full council will make a decision at the next meeting.

The email with the decision register is usually one of those emails you delete straight away. But not last week. Because last week interim funding for festivals was on the agenda once again – and in our opinion the decision that was taken was not a good one.

There is a pot of £320,000 to support festivals and events across the city for the next financial year and it was up to the City Growth & Regeneration Committee to allocate it. Last month Sinn Fein had tried to push through a £200,000 funding boost to Féile an Phobail (on top of funding they already get) which we voted against, not because of Féile – but because of process. Council hadn’t had a proper discussion and there hadn’t been an explanation as to why such a substantial sum of money should be allocated. So despite Sinn Fein’s protestations, it was voted that this go back to Committee for further discussion following briefings on the issue.

When it returned this month a last-minute proposal was put on the table from the DUP; they wanted to give rest of the money – £40,000 each – to Orangefest, the East Side Arts Festival and the CS Lewis Festival. The Greater Shankill Winter Festival was allocated £45,000. Again there was no particular reason why they should be allocated this sum of money. The attempt to just drive it through, last minute, was typically brazen. And highlighted how the festival funding process is a complete mess. All these festivals may do brilliant work, but this doesn’t negate the fact that there are many other arts organisations in our city in need of support too – and they don’t get a look in.

So back to the call-in – we had managed to get two other Councillors to sign our ‘call-in’ over the DUP and Sinn Féin financial carve-up, but we’ve since been forced to withdraw it after the Councillors, an independent and one UUP, decided to remove their names. With Sinn Fein and DUP (who may not be able to get a government together but when it comes to £££ in Council are the political party equivalent of #relationshipgoals) supporting the allocation of funding in this way it will almost definitely pass at full Council next week.

The next Council elections are in May, and as ever transparency will be top of the Alliance agenda. A long overdue Cultural Strategy (currently in development) will be brought to the new Council in April 2020 which should hopefully ensure a fair, open and transparent way of funding, which is vital if we’re to grow our arts sector. We’re also hopeful the new Council will see a bigger Alliance team returned, so we can at least call-in decisions when others lack the courage to.


p.s This week I am loving the Derry Girls & Amnesty NI collab-protest against our archaic abortion laws

Also loving the High Low Podcast (they’re super posh but give great book recommendations and talk about feminism/ best salt and vinegar crisps / MPs who instagram like they’re influencers etc) & Jack Blanchard’s Politico email which is one of the simplest ways to keep up with the chaos that is Brexit.

Not loving Sinn Fein’s manipulation of Colum Eastwood’s Fianna Fail’s Ard Fheis speech.