Belfast’s Sinn Fein Lord Mayor paid a trip to the heartland of the city’s loyalist south this week.
Rubbing shoulders with former UDA prisoner Jackie McDonald, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was shown around the Gilpin’s site, which it is hoped will be the scene of a large-scale redevelopment project in years to come.
Afterwards, he and his DUP deputy Christopher Stalford issued a joint statement in which they backed the regeneration plans.
Alderman Stalford said such a visit to a loyalist stronghold was not entirely unheard of, and added that he was willing to “work with anyone” to help get the project delivered.
The visit on Tuesday came just over a week after councillor O Muilleoir was made Lord Mayor.
At the time he said that he would not rule out becoming the first Sinn Fein representative in Belfast to attend a war remembrance event.
The joint statement from him and his deputy kept away from politics.
It read: “We are impressed by the work going on in this area and the commitment of those working on the ground here to promote its regeneration.
“The purpose of our visit here today is to reassure the people of Sandy Row and its surrounding area that we are listening to them and are supportive of their efforts.”
Speaking yesterday, Alderman Stalford said: “I didn’t extend the invite to him. But, to his credit, he accepted it and he went down and indicated his support for the project, so I think that’s a good thing.
“I said at the time I became Deputy Lord Mayor – we have differences. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work together.”
Dr Garnet Busby, operations manager of Belfast South Community Resources which invited Mr Ó Muilleoir, said: “Sandy Row is one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland, yet it sits adjacent to some of the wealthiest areas and is only a short distance from the city centre.
“BSCR is working to address many of the issues which arise from this deprivation and we are hopeful that today’s visit will be the catalyst to help us move forward.”
Following the Sandy Row visit, the two politicians moved on to the Markets area.
The Gilpin’s project centres on the roughly two-acre site formerly used by the furniture firm, which has lain derelict for around the last half-dozen years.
It is privately owned, and the hope is that with the right investment it could be turned into offices, accommodation and have space for community uses too, creating what Alderman Stalford said would be like a “town square” for the area.
However, he stressed the process is in its early stages.