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The Troubles in the Boston City Council

What passes for political debate in the City Council has descended into the kind of tribal, venomous rhetoric that held Northern Ireland back for generations. As finally happened in Belfast, it’s time to tone it down in Boston.

The Boston City Council chamberPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Over the last few months, the regular outbreaks of chaos and venomous rhetoric in the Boston City Council have conjured an undefined sense of deja vu.

Where had I seen this before?

And, then, on Wednesday, when Councilor Frank Baker dismissed Councilor Liz Breadon as “a Protestant from Fermanagh,” it hit me: The Boston City Council has morphed into the Belfast City Council, circa 1990, when the Troubles were in full bloom.

Northern Ireland by the North End.

The first time I walked into the City Council chambers in Belfast, some 30 years ago, it looked like the food fight scene in “Animal House.” People were screaming at each other. Some Protestant councilors threw orange juice at their Catholic colleagues, as if it would change the tint of their politics from nationalist green to unionist orange.


I interviewed the most belligerent of the Protestant unionist councilors, a guy named Sammy Wilson. Wilson had spent a better part of the evening calling some of his colleagues murderers and scum.

When I asked Wilson what his day job was, he said, without a hint of irony, “I’m a schoolteacher.”

Swell. The next generation of Protestant kids in Belfast was being taught by a sectarian bigot. When Alex Maskey, an Irish republican and fellow city councilor, was shot by loyalist paramilitaries, Wilson’s idea of sympathy was to call him “leadbelly.”

The kind of tribal politics espoused by Sammy Wilson are reactionary, and did nothing to advance the interests of his mostly working-class Protestant constituents. Nationalist politicians too often took Wilson’s bait.

Frank Baker has every right to be upset about his district being redrawn. But calling Breadon’s redistricting plan, whatever its faults, anti-Catholic because it doesn’t adhere to the parish lines established by the Archdiocese of Boston is, as Sean O’Casey might put it, going beyond the beyonds.


Since when are voting districts for an elected secular government defined by an unaccountable religious entity?

Breadon had a good retort to Baker’s accusation, denying she was anti-Catholic, insisting she had opposed discrimination against Catholics in her native Northern Ireland, and noting that after moving to Boston she married “a nice Irish Catholic girl,” Mary McCarthy.

Baker apologized for his outburst, as he should have. But Baker is hardly the only city councilor who has demeaned colleagues in highly inflammatory, personal terms in recent months.

The experience of Belfast, meanwhile, suggests Boston is not doomed to always have a council where chaos and animus reign. As the peace process in Northern Ireland took root, Belfast City Council became far more civil.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, a former Belfast city councilor and mayor who led the effort to make Boston and Belfast sister cities, said the key to moving forward in Belfast was letting go of the past. It is advice that Boston city councilors would do well to consider.

“Once old wounds were opened,” Ó Muilleoir told me, “it took a lifetime to dial down the political temperature in the chamber in order for business to resume. Have at it about the present and the future but leave the past to the history books.”

Even before Sammy Wilson left the council in 2010, there was a marked improvement in decorum in Belfast. He is now a member of Parliament. Go figure. Councilors from various parties now work routinely together on common interests.


Since 1998, when the Troubles as we knew them ended, politicians in Northern Ireland have struggled to navigate the road from perpetual conflict to uneasy peace and gradual reconciliation. But it’s better.

No better example of that willingness to live for the future rather than languish in the past was offered by Martin McGuinness, the former IRA leader, and the Rev. Ian Paisley, the fundamentalist preacher who pushed aside decades of anti-Catholic bigotry to enthusiastically lead a power-sharing government with McGuinness.

The two former sworn enemies got along so well, always joking with each other, that they were dubbed the Chuckle Brothers.

Going forward, the Boston City Council could use more chuckles. And fewer chucklehead remarks.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.