"I am convinced that we are on the cusp of a bright new day in Belfast and I want a front-row seat for the show."
35 years ago, when I lived in a West Belfast house where the front door had drop bars to prevent it being sled-hammered in and where the stairs boasted an iron gate which wouldn’t have been out of place in a bank vault, my California pal Kevin McKiernan suggested that I swap my Belfast City Council business attire (which included a flak jacket) for the working uniform of your average Santa Barbaran — a Grateful Dead tee-shirt and beach shorts. (Kevin was a war photographer which sort of tells you all you need to know about Belfast as a visitor destination in those days.)
It was a generous offer but because there was so much to do in Belfast — and we had such a tremendous canvas on which to create — I decided to stay put and get stuck in.
Thus when some well-wishers suggest that, on stepping down from the role of Sinn Féin public representative — for the second time — I traverse the bowl of tears to the US, I ask them if they have been following Belfast's progress at all.
For the potential to create real, lasting, positive change in Belfast is a thousand times greater today than it was in the bleak mid-winter of our conflict. Indeed, I am convinced that we are on the cusp of a bright new day in Belfast and I want a front-row seat for the show.
But even if I’m not upping sticks to start anew in the US, I most certainly do intend to bring America to Belfast — put the dates in your diary now for the seventh annual Belfast International Homecoming, 14-16 October — on a scale not seen before.
It has been an absolute privilege to serve the voters of west and south Belfast in my two spins on the poliical merry-go-round and a great honour to serve Sinn Féin. But with my bus pass application set to go in today — when I hit the big 60 — it was the right time for me to hand over the MLA baton to that consummate community activist and beacon of positivity Deirdre Hargey. Herself a former First Citizen of Belfast, Deirdre will leave a real mark on political and civic life in her new role.
And of course, I will have more time to visit the vibrant Irish American communities across the US to bring their endeavors to a wider audience and to forge transatlantic links.
There is a quiet process of transformation going on in Belfast which is being driven by boundless ambition and a thirst for an inclusive and diverse society at peace with itself. That transformation was made possible by the peace which in turn wouldn't have been possible without Irish America. That's why Irish Americans can always be assured of the red carpet treatment in Belfast.
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