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The politician and the pandemic - ‘Looking back at my year as Mayor of Mid and East Antrim’

By outgoing Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Councillor Peter Johnston

Looking back over the last 12 months, it has been, without a doubt, a devastating year for so many people across Mid and East Antrim.

So many families have lost loved ones and, sadly, 221 people from our Borough have died with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The impacts of this unprecedented health emergency have been far reaching – from those families who were unable to visit their relatives in care homes or hospital, to individuals who lost employment and businesses who faced uncertainty and financial pressures.

Embarking on the role of Mayor in June 2020, responding to the pandemic quickly became the primary focus for me and for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

In the early days of the crisis, Council took the lead in responding to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens, through its Community Planning Partnership, in delivering a number of critical projects to address food poverty and isolation on the ground.

By working closely with both our statutory partners and the community and voluntary sector, those who needed our help the most, received it without delay.

During the toughest of times, true community spirit shone through in Mid and East Antrim, from the band of ‘mask makers’ who volunteered their time and efforts to sew face coverings and other items of PPE for healthcare and frontline workers, to the sporting and business organisations who answered the call for help when it was needed.

As more and more offers of help were received, I was delighted to launch the MEA Stars initiative with almost 900 certificates distributed to those who have shown remarkable commitment to their community.

The way people rallied together is something that deserved recognition and I will never forget what we as a community have achieved throughout this time.

Through Council’s COVID-19 Community Grant Scheme, £120,000 in funding was provided to local community groups to assist them in their efforts, while at Christmas time, our wonderful residents donated a staggering 2.3 tonnes of toys to help struggling families through our Toy Container Appeal in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, East Belfast Mission and Drop Inn Ministries.

Resilience and resourcefulness

It is fair to say that I have been overwhelmed by the sheer resilience of the businesses within our Borough during these times of adversity.

By utilising the collective power of forward thinking partnerships such as the Town Centre, Hospitality and Tourism, and Manufacturing Task Forces, Council has led the way in supporting the local economy and taking the necessary steps to create opportunities, which will sustain them as we recover from the pandemic.

Our innovative ‘COVID Confidence Scheme’, which was launched in November 2020, has provided reassurance to businesses, customers and the community that shops and businesses are safe and open again.

While traditionally busy family occasions like Hallowe’en and Christmas were very different this year, the creativity and commitment of Council and the local business community meant that our residents were still able to enjoy some fun and festivity virtually and with the health and wellbeing of our people of utmost importance.

Despite the challenges, there was also an opportunity to showcase Mid and East Antrim on the world stage as we welcomed the legendary Sir Mo Farah and other elite runners to the Borough for the Antrim Coast Half Marathon, and we look forward to the event being open to athletes of every level this year on 29 August.

Looking back to look forward

As a year like no other drew to a close, I was delighted to be able to look forward to celebrating the rich talent and resourcefulness of Mid and East Antrim during the Centenary Year of Northern Ireland.

Throughout 2021, Council are committed to hosting a number of events under the #NI100MEA umbrella as part of its Northern Ireland Centennial Programme, which is being co-ordinated by Council’s Centenary Working Group.

The Centennial Programme will draw upon our industrial heritage, successful businesses, and the growth of the economy and tourism industry. It looks to celebrate the success of our local ambassadors, sporting heroes and global stars, which have put our country on the map, and I am excited for what is planned.

Northern Ireland’s healthcare heroes are certainly making great strides in the COVID-19 vaccination effort, with well over one million people having received their first dose at the time of writing.

This is the biggest vaccination programme in Northern Ireland’s history, and it is fitting that it is being successfully delivered 100 years since the formation of Northern Ireland.

It is also appropriate that I pay tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who passed away peacefully in this our Centenary year. Many tributes have been paid, condolences tendered, and stories recounted about this remarkable man, who was just weeks away from his 100th birthday. His loss has been deeply felt across our Borough and in mourning him, we are thankful for a life so well lived.

Helping others now and in the future

It was a privilege to support Christians Against Poverty (CAP) and the Royal Irish Regiments during my Mayoral Term CAP have been involved with supporting the community during the pandemic whilst The Royal Irish Regiment’s strong connections with the Borough have provided valuable support to the most vulnerable. It has been an absolute privilege to support both organisations throughout.

As Mayor it was a pleasure to mark National Merchant Navy Day in honour of the men and women who provided essential supplies to the UK during both World Wars and to celebrate our dependence on modern day merchant seafarers.

I was also proud to announce that Mid and East Antrim had been chosen as the host venue for the Regional Armed Forces Day 2021 celebrations. This is a prestigious honour for our Borough as it reinforces the long-held tradition of support for our Armed Forces.

Despite the significant economic pressures and challenges encountered throughout 2020/2021, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is positioned to drive economic recovery and growth.

The establishment of Council’s Union Connectivity Group will be extremely important in ensuring our Borough can fully realise its potential in terms of economic growth through trade and our exceptional supply chain.

For generations, Mid and East Antrim has been the gateway to Northern Ireland for our fellow UK citizens in Great Britain and while discussions around physical infrastructure linking our regions continue, I along with Council will be working hard to promote and support Union Connectivity and build on our links and relationships for the benefit of all.

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