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Party stalwarts have 36 years joint service


Tom Hartley and Gerard O’Neill prepare to leave City Hall as Councillors  for the last time Tom Hartley and Gerard O’Neill prepare to leave City Hall as Councillors for the last time
By Francesca Ryan

It’s all change at Belfast City Council as two seasoned veterans of the chamber bid farewell.

With 36 years of service between them, Sinn Féin’s Tom Hartley and Gerard O’Neill are old hands at City Hall but, they say, they have given all that they can give and the time is now right to stand aside.

The experienced pair will retire next month, but their leaving Council does not mean they are leaving politics.

Speaking to the Andersonstown News ahead of their departure, both councillors vowed to stay involved in the local political scene and are looking forward to working alongside their replacements, who have yet to be selected.

Leaving the City Hall benches after two decades, former Lord Mayor Tom Hartley is feeling positive about the change.  The Beechmount Councillor and renowned local historian says he has seen the many changes for the better that have taken place during his terms.  Now, he says, it’s time for new talent to step into the chamber, giving him time to throw himself into other projects that remain close to his heart.

“They say when one door closes, another opens,” said the popular Councillor.  “This is how I’m viewing it, this will see a new period of my life beginning with new challenges and new opportunities.”

Reflecting on his time at City Hall, Tom says his greatest achievement is having been elected by the people of the area where he grew up.

“For me there has been no great honour than to see  people put an X at my name and for me to be elected by the community I was born into,” he said.  “Representing the Mid-Falls has been a profound part of my life and the greatest honour.

“I have been part of a great movement of change in our society and you can’t traverse the Falls Road today without seeing that change, I’m so proud to have been a part of that.

“When my mother used to go to City Hall to pay the gas bill, it was the sort of place you would want to get out of quickly, but today it’s different. Sinn Féin has led the way in making these changes that remind everyone that the City Hall belongs to everyone.”

Having been Belfast’s First Citizen, Tom says he feels he has done all he can in local government.

“Being Lord Mayor of the city was an honour for both me and for my party as were all the other roles I’ve held. The past 20 years in Council have presented me with challenges and experiences that I will always remember and cherish.  I’m also proud that my proposals for a Famine window and a Jim Larkin window at City Hall became reality.

“There is so much, both good times and difficult times, that I will treasure about this extraordinary period of time in my life.”

But while Tom is retiring from Council, he will not be switching off, nor will he be missing from the streets of his beloved Beechmount.

“My political experience will not go to waste,” he said.  “I will remain involved, I am not giving up politics as there are other opportunities I would like to develop, politics will be part of me until the day I pass on.  I’m also the party archivist so this will give me more time to do more work in that field and I will also be able to find the time to finish my book on Milltown Cemetery.

“I will miss being a Councillor in the context of it being a rewarding and brilliant experience, but now I am free to go on and make new experiences.

“I’ve been in politics for 45 years and, dare I say it, I’m getting on. But there is a new generation coming up and that vibrancy and youth can bring so much to the party.

“But what’s the saying? I’m not going away, you know! People will still see me up and down the Falls on my bike, I will keep the connection with my area of Beechmount and I will still be a part of this community that I love and I hope to reflect its vibrancy and vision in all that I do.”

Tom’s Upper Falls counterpart and party colleague Gerard O’Neill is also calling it a day at City Hall. And he too remains committed to working for the party and is eager to take on another role come the next election.

“I have spent 16 years representing the good and great people of the Upper Falls and it has been a pleasure, but the time has come to hand the mantle on to somebody else,” said the Lenadoon Councillor.

“I will be working closely with my replacement and I  look forward to being an election agent at the next election because it is the seat that’s important. It was never my seat, it’s a republican seat, and I will do all I can to ensure my replacement retains the seat.

“This is an opportunity for the party to bring in new talent and for me to pursue other opportunities while remaining in the party. I will be kept busy with my own job and also doing work for the party. That won’t stop because I’m no longer a Councillor.”

As with any role, after 16 years, it will be hard to suddenly stop, but Gerard says it’s the people – both in his area and on the Council – that he will be missing the most.

“There are definitely aspects I will miss,” he said, “like working with community groups and residents, but I will still live in the area and will still be in the party and helping my replacement settle into the role.

“My life has been made easy working in the area I love, the area I live in and working with the people and the party activists.

“I have also had a very positive experience at Belfast City Council and have developed great relationships with people there.  It has been a great experience all round and I have learnt a lot during my time there.

“I think 16 years is a long time in any role and it’s just time for me to move on. With the Review of Public Administration and new councils, it just felt like this was the right time to make the change and give the opportunity to someone else.

“On a personal level, after four terms, I’ve given all that I can give. I’ve made my contribution to Council life and I am now ready to move on to another role in the party.”

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