A DUNMURRY councillor is to step down from the role ahead of May’s election having served on council for over 18 years.
The SDLP’s Brian Heading has announced that he will not contest the upcoming election and will be retiring from front-line politics in the coming months.
Reflecting on his time in office – which included serving on both Lisburn and Belfast City Councils, as well as Deputy and later as only the second nationalist Mayor of Lisburn – Cllr Heading told the Andersonstown News that he was looking forward to spending more time with his family.
“Steven Corr hit the nail on the head when he stepped down before Christmas and said that if you think you are going to change anything sitting at a committee in City Hall, think again because we have a lot of talent down there but no power,” he said.
“If you go into City Hall and be idealistic thinking you are going to raise a problem and get something done about it you will soon find out that you can’t do anything and half the time it is the responsibility of a government department who we end up lobbying.
“If the issue isn’t on the relevant minister’s agenda, or their civil servants say that it is just the City Council ranting and raving then you are unlikely to see results.”
Brian said that he believes Belfast City Council punches below its weight, as when there is agreement between all councillors they should be pushing to deliver on what they have agreed.
“What they do, they do very well but once you get other issues such as the Dunmurry Manor fiasco and why that was allowed to get as bad as it got with the Department for Health and the RQIA, we were able to raise it and inform other councillors about what was happening.”
Cllr Heading was first elected to Lisburn City Council in May 2005 and says that it was a challenge.
“I would always class myself as being on the left of the SDLP and was mindful of the opportunity to raise the lack of social justice.
“When you look at the history of Lisburn council and the struggle in areas such as Twinbrook and Poleglass with the attitude during the '70s when they had to be told by a direct rule minister to empty the bins, some of those councillors were still knocking about when I was elected to the council
“I would have much preferred to raise the lack of economic investment in the Dunmurry Cross/Colin DEA which is still the case today.”
Brian described Lisburn as a suburb of Belfast and said that there was an argument for it to be brought into the boundary of Belfast City Council prior to the local government reforms in 2014/15.
During his time on Lisburn Council, Brian gained a reputation for “being a bit of a leftie” – including among his own party colleagues.
“What I was raising were issues which I thought were important. When I was elected Mayor one of the big controversies was my decision to cancel the inauguration dinner.
“When I was selected as Mayor I asked the staff to make sure I visit schools and social welfare organisations.
“One of my first visits was to the Citizens Advice Bureau on Railway Street. I got speaking to the staff and it was clear that people were still suffering the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis.
“I asked if it was people on benefits who needed advice and they had told me that it was mainly working people, who were in negative equity coming in looking advice.
“They also ran a foodbank. When I thought about the affluence and everything that was going on, I was being expected to entertain 250 people, many of whom I wouldn’t have known.
“It was against my principles to be handing out a dinner to people when there were so many in Lisburn who were struggling.”
Brian also pointed out to his joining striking health workers on the picket line at Lagan Valley Hospital while he was mayor and told us he used the role to promote other causes rather than parading around in a chain.
Looking at the period of transition to Belfast City Council, Brian recalled that his first impressions were that Belfast was doing more and had a bigger budget to intervene.
“I was interested in their economics and what they were doing to improve things. As Steven Corr said, you are not going to get changes by sitting on a council committee.
“The staff act professionally and won’t act on the whim of a councillor so you need to have your argument to have it approved by full council.
“An example would be my work recently to get the data on how the fuel poverty crisis is affecting people’s health.”
Brian joked that the biggest challenge in his role as councillor came from his own party, the SDLP.
“It will be interesting to see how well the SDLP do in May. It is going to be a challenge for them to retain the number of seats that they have but I have done 18 years, I am at retirement age, and I am watching my three grandchildren develop their political views,” he said.
“I am going to sit back as a spectator, watch it and comment on what is happening.”