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Spotlight shines on unsung heroes of Belfast at annual Aisling Awards

Lord Mayor John Finucane and Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh presenting the Person of the Year Award to LORAG's Gerard Rice

2911JC19 Lord Mayor John Finucane and Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh presenting the Person of the Year Award to LORAG's Gerard Rice 2911JC19
By Ciara Quinn

THE great and the good from across the city of Belfast gathered on Friday evening for a packed Aisling Awards, now in its 23rd year.
Addressing a full-house in the Europa Hotel for the Aisling Awards, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said that any attempt to introduce a hard border in Ireland or to undermine the Good Friday Agreement would be rejected by Irish America.
Mayor Walsh said he would oppose “talk of building walls and hardening borders”.
“Those of us who believe in community have a duty to reject this division and defend the progress that has been made by our cities,” he said. “I’m here in Belfast to strengthen the values we share and to learn from some of the world’s leading experts at building community. And I pledge to you, as your partner, that whatever happens, I have your back and Boston has your back. We won’t stand by if the peace and the progress you have worked so hard for are threatened.”
Saluting the success of the Boston-Belfast Sister City Agreement he signed in 2014, the Mayor Walsh said the bonds between the two cities “will sustain us through all the challenges we face.”
During a whirlwind visit to Belfast, Mayor Walsh also met with peacemakers, business leaders and dropped the puck at the Friendship Four ice hockey tournament which brings four American college ice hockey teams to Belfast annually to compete for the Belpot trophy.
On Saturday, he also visited the new James Connolly Visitor Centre, Áras Uí Chonghaile, on the Falls Road in West Belfast where he praised US labour unions which raised over $700,000 towards the cost of the facility. At the Duncairn Arts Centre in North Belfast, director the Rev Bill Shaw briefed the Mayor on the group’s outreach to Belfast’s newer communities and the recent start to Friday prayers for the Muslim community.
Accompanying Mayor Walsh on his Belfast trip were members of the Boston Irish Business Association who were kicking off a week-long trade and investment mission to Ireland.
Among the audience at the Aisling Awards – dubbed Belfast’s community Oscars — were civic leaders from every corner of the city. In his address, Mayor Walsh paid tribute to those spearheading change in Belfast.
“Belfast is a special city,” he said. “Belfast has a tremendous amount to offer the world and we can see it represented here in arts and culture, in education and a concern for young people, in science and innovation and in the values of healing and connection and hope. In these days of global uncertainty and rising division, the world needs what Belfast has to offer. As mayor of a multi-cultural city, working to build a future for all our people, I am drawn here because of these qualities. And together, we have learned that building the relationship between our cities strengthens us and helps us all. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that as nations struggle against the pull of the past, cities working together can lead the world forward.”
The son of Galway immigrants, Mayor Walsh stressed his enduring belief in the American dream. “In the US, our immigrant heritage is summed up by that concept,” he said. “The belief that anyone, from anywhere, can come to the United States and make a good life, free from obstacles of oppression or discrimination they may have faced at home.”
He said his parents worked hard on their arrival in Boston and gave back. “Our dream was a dream of community,” he added. “It was a dream where each person’s efforts made the community more welcoming for those who followed. That’s how I’ve tried to serve as mayor: to be a city that offers opportunity to everyone and welcomes the world with open arms and open hearts.”
Mayor Walsh returned to the stage in the company of Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane to make the final presentation of the evening to Person of the Year Gerard Rice of LORAG.

The Moviehouse Positive Belfast Award was awarded to Save Our Sunflower Campaign

The TG4 Culture and Arts Award was awarded to Action Ability Belfast

The Kennedy Centre Achievement in Education Award was awarded to Conway Education Centre

The Belfast International Airport Fáilte Award for Hospitality and Tourism was awarded to James Connolly Visitor Centre

The Sean Graham Sports Acheivement Award was awarded to Naomh Éanna

The Foras na Gaeilge Contribution to Irish Language Award was awarded to Turas

The HannawayCA Ltd Small Business Big Impact Award was awarded to Blk Box Fitness

The Urban Village People’s Choice Award went to South Belfast Alternatives for South Belfast Youth Action Partnership

The Aisling Awards Roll of Honour went to Director of Whiterock Children’s Centre’s Deirdre Walsh

The Aisling Awards Person of the Year was awarded to LORAG (Lower Ormeau Residents’ Action Group) Gerard Rice.

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