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Sister cities and brother Buddhists

Mayor Martin Walsh and his Belfast counterpart, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, outside the Seaport Hotel after they signed a sister city agreement. The Lord Mayor’s chain of office weighs 14 pounds.
Mayor Martin Walsh and his Belfast counterpart, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, outside the Seaport Hotel after they signed a sister city agreement. The Lord Mayor’s chain of office weighs 14 pounds.Photo courtesy of Dan Hallissey

The Irish American Partnership event at the Seaport Hotel, formalizing a sister-city agreement between Boston and Belfast, got off to an auspicious if very un-Irish start: It began on time.

The irrepressible Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who hails from Andersonstown in West Belfast, arrived wearing the Lord Mayor’s chain of office, an elaborate gold necklace that weighs 14 pounds, is worth $750,000, and would make a rapper blush.

“I tell my staff, I don’t matter. Just don’t lose the chain,” Ó Muilleoir deadpanned.

The other mayor Martin, Marty Walsh of the Savin Hill Walshes, arrived sans bling.

The two mayor Martys said some nice things about each other and their cities, signed some nice papers, and it was all nice and official: Belfast and Boston are joined at the hip. The two mayors were standing in a brightly appointed hotel ballroom, one of them dripping in gold, the location dripping with potent symbolism. Marty Walsh looked out the window, across the street, at Commonwealth Pier where, as a teenager, he was handed a hard hat and something heavy, his first job as a laborer.

Right next to the pier is a slip used by a fishing trawler, repainted and renamed, that in 1984 carried across the Atlantic a cache of weapons gathered by Boston gangsters, bound for the Irish Republican Army. The Irish Navy captured the boat that had received the guns in an open sea transfer. Had they got through, many of those guns would have found their way to Belfast.


But things change. Wars end. People move on. The mayors of Boston and Belfast want to send not guns but jobs and counterintuitive thinking each other’s way. Their arrangement makes mutual economic development and cultural exchange easier. That cultural exchange goes beyond the fact that so many people in Boston and Belfast share an ethnicity.


“Like Boston, Belfast is a minority-majority city,” Ó Muilleoir told me in a deserted ballroom after the crowd left. “It’s not just Catholics and Protestants now. It’s gays, Poles, Asians.”

No one is in a position to exclude, or lord over, the other. It was the politics of exclusion and majoritarianism that tortured Belfast for centuries, and which not that long ago greatly limited Boston.

Belfast was historically a city divided between Catholic nationalists who aspire to unity with the Irish Republic and Protestant unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. The peace process that began in the 1990s has brought great change, including an infusion of newcomers, some of whom are the targets of bigots who in a previous life would have chosen their victims based on national allegiance rather than nationality.

Ó Muilleoir is intrigued by the way clergy, especially African-American ministers, partnered with police and street workers to combat violence and antisocial behavior in Boston. In March, he met with, and was impressed by, black preachers at a gun buyback event in Dorchester.

Boston corporation counsel Gene O’Flaherty said the formal wording of the sister-city agreement specifically included faith-based groups. “There’s a lot on that front both cities have to offer,” he said.

A group of Belfast clergy will visit Boston in October. “And they’re not all Christian,” Ó Muilleoir said. “We’ve got some terrific Buddhists. The power of smaller minorities is the future of our city.”


Walsh, whose margin of victory was attributed to a coalition of minority blocs, agrees. He wants to breathe life into the dormant sister-city concept. Boston has eight other sister cities, dating back to 1959. Belfast is the first since 2001. Walsh has talked to state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry about a partnership in Haiti.

“Port-au-Prince would be a natural,” said Dorcena Forry, whose parents are from Haiti. “Boston has the third-largest Haitian population in the US. There are so many familial and organizational connections.”

Praia, Da Nang, Santo Domingo? The list is endless. As are the possibilities.

Belfast Buddhists in Boston?

Hey, things change.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.