‘Championing inclusion’ will be new first citizen’s priority

‘Championing inclusion’ will be new first citizen’s priority

5 June 2024

PETE Byrne is the district’s new first citizen.

The SDLP man’s appointment was confirmed at Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s annual meeting on Monday night when the Slieve Gullion councillor was presented with the chain of office by his predecessor, Sinn Fein’s Valerie Harte.

And history was made when Rowallane councillor, David Lee-Surginor, became the first Alliance representative to hold the deputy chairman’s position. He is also the first deputy chairman from an ethnic background.

The new vice-chairman succeeds Downpatrick SDLP councillor Gareth Sharvin.

In his inaugural address as council chairman, Cllr Byrne said championing inclusion would play an important part of his year in office.

He said “visibility” is vital for so many of in the LGBT community and for so many young people growing up across communities today.

Cllr Byrne said he was glad that, with the support of his husband in the chamber, he can play his small part in promoting the LGBT community by taking on this role.

“I want to use my voice to make sure your voice is heard, that you feel safe and included within your community,” he continued. “I recognise the struggles you may be going through, as I went through them myself and, at times, you feel you are on your own. But I want to assure you, you are not alone.

“Our district is diverse and full of fantastic people doing extraordinary work. Our community, voluntary and charity sectors are the backbone that supports so many marginalised and vulnerable groups across our area, from Saintfield to Culloville.”

The new chairman said he is committed to working with and supporting those marginalised groups, to reach out to them, educate himself, listen to their stories and speak up with them.

Cllr Byrne said that as a businessman, he also wanted to champion trade and investment into the district.

He continued: “I am passionate about promoting our area as an integral part of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor, removing barriers to investment, growing our skills base and strengthening our connectivity by improving our cross-border infrastructure links.

“A better connected, higher skilled corridor allows us to market our district as a globally renowned place to do business.”

And the new first citizen said he is particularly keen to work with local tourism providers to promote the area as a premier tourism destination on the island. 

“Developing a regional strategy with our partners in Louth County Council and working to bring Ireland’s Ancient East into Counties Down and Armagh is an opportunity to build on a shared place for all communities where we celebrate and promote our shared history and our rich heritage,” he said.

“A real driver to reconciliation on our island.”

Cllr Byrne said his role in supporting local charities will no doubt develop over the early months, but one which is close to his heart and be one of his nominated charities this year is Cuan Mhuire. 

“The work that they do to help individuals and families across this district struggling with addiction is simply life-saving,” he said.

Cllr Byrne congratulated outgoing chairwoman Valerie Harte and outgoing deputy chairman Gareth Sharvin for their  leadership “marked with dignity and respect over the past year”.

Showcasing the district’s tourism product is one of the new vice-chairman’s priorities.

Cllr Lee-Surginor said he looks forward to the year ahead as the council continues to grow and support its tourism sector.

He said the focus will be on showcasing the district and its unmatched natural beauty to visitors from within the island of Ireland and beyond, from Killyleagh where work on a revitalisation scheme is nearing completion to the Irish Open 

at Newcastle’s Royal County Down, to the majestic mountains of Mourne and the Ring of Gullion.

Cllr Lee-Surginor highlighted his commitment to local businesses affected by the November floods and the voluntary community sector facing funding cuts. 

He too paid tribute to Cllrs Harte and Sharvin on their positivity, work ethic and for ensuring that they represented the whole of the district.