Lilian Seenoi-Barr set to become Northern Ireland’s first Black mayor

Nadine White
Race Correspondent
Monday 29 April 2024 15:23 BST
(Social Democratic and Labour Party)

Councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr is set to become the first Black mayor in Northern Ireland.

The politician, who arrived in Northern Ireland as a refugee, has been selected as the newest mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council.

This comes after she made history as the first Black politician to be elected to public office in Northern Ireland last year, when she was elected as a councillor in the Foyleside district of Derry.

Hailing her groundbreaking mayoral appointment on Monday, Kenya-born councillor Ms Seenoi-Barr said she’s “proud to be a Maasai woman and a Derry girl”. She went on: “I cannot express how much the honour of serving as mayor of Derry and Strabane means to me.

“The people of this city have taken me into their hearts and everywhere I go I never fail to be amazed at the warmth, kindness and generosity of the people who live here. Having initially come to Derry as a refugee facing an uncertain future, I can now truly say that my family have found their home.

“The significance of my appointment as mayor is not lost on me, and I will work for every single person in this city regardless of their religion, ethnicity or background. These are the values I have carried with me since getting involved in politics and are reflected in the ethos of my party.”

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) welcomed Councillor Seenoi-Barr’s upcoming appointment, praising her as “a source of constant enthusiasm, energy and positivity” and “a valued addition to the SDLP family”.

Ms Seenoi-Barr, 42, has been working with the council since 2021, and has campaigned on gender rights issues for Maasai women, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Moreover, she is the founder and director of the city’s North West Migrants Forum, which supports Black and minority ethnic communities who live in Northern Ireland.

At the height of the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2021, the councillor organised demonstrations and spoke out against systemic racism.

Ms Seenoi-Barr will take over from Derry City and Strabane Council’s current mayor, Sinn Fein’s Patricia Logue.

The mayoral selection process has been criticised by some party members as “undemocratic” and prompted the resignation of current deputy mayor Jason Barr, who left the SDLP and will now stand as an independent councillor.

Mr Barr and another councillor, Shauna Cusack, had both planned to run against Ms Seenoi-Barr but said they were sidelined.

Their protestations were not “sour grapes”, the pair insisted, but moreover reflected a “genuine concern about the lack of democracy in the process”.

In a joint statement, they said that they had been rejected as candidates for the role, “removing us from the process and competition, in order to put only one candidate forward for the post”.

For the first time in history, none of the UK governments is led by a white man: Rishi Sunak is of Indian heritage, Wales just selected its first leader of African heritage in Vaughan Gething. Scotland elected a son of Pakistani immigrants, Humza Yousaf, as its first minister last year, although he has now resigned. Michelle O’Neill is the first minister of Northern Ireland.

Ms Seenoi-Barr has been celebrated by Kenyan figures including senator Ledama Olekin who posted on Twitter/X: “Please join me in congratulating my baby sister Councillor Lilian Seenoi for being elected as the first Black, Maasai mayor of the City of Derry, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.”

Ms Seenoi-Barr has previously said that racial equality is an “afterthought” in Northern Ireland, despite the progress being made in advancing equality in public life. She pointed to the fact that Northern Ireland’s new executive does not have any politicians who are of minority ethnic heritage.

Though Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic is a separate country, Ms Seenoi-Barr’s appointment will inevitably evoke memories of Nigerian-Irish politician Rotimi Adebari’s appointment as the first Black person to become a mayor in the Republic of Ireland in 2007.

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