Posted on June 5, 2024

Former Refugee Becomes NI’s First Black Mayor

Elaine McGee and Mike McBride, BBC, June 3, 2024

Lilian Seenoi-Barr has made history after becoming Northern Ireland’s first black mayor, and only the third on the island of Ireland.

She was installed as mayor of Derry City and Strabane at a special council meeting on Monday evening.

Ms Seenoi-Barr, who arrived in Londonderry 14 years ago as a refugee from Kenya, said it was an honour to become first citizen.

A crowd of about 300 people assembled inside the Guildhall to watch Ms Seenoi-Barr receive the mayoral chain of office.

Among those in attendance were family and friends of Ms Seenoi-Barr, a delegation of Kenyan political representatives and members from various ethnic minority groups from across the island of Ireland.


‘Build a new future’

It has been quite a journey from Ms Seenoi-Barr’s native Narok in southern Kenya to Londonderry’s Guildhall.

Following her instillation as mayor, she said she came to the city in search of a better life.

“If you told me that I would become the first citizen of the second city, I would not have believed you,” she told the chamber.

Ms Seenoi-Barr has been a councillor for the Foyleside ward since 2021 when she was co-opted by the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

A fall-out over the mayoral selection process, which led to two party colleagues resigning, and racist abuse including death threats followed the announcement of Ms Seenoi-Barr being chosen for the role.

She said the “anti-immigrant sentiment” that spread on social media was a “reminder of the issues we face as a community” but it was “not reflective of people in this district”.

“I have witnessed the warmth and kindness of the Derry that I know and have loved with all my heart, through the kindness of strangers and the outpouring of solidarity and support,” she said.

Ms Seenoi-Barr said she was committed to working hard for the entire community.

She said she would be “one who is accessible and one who will lead with hope”.

“It is our time to build a more inclusive, prosperous and vibrant Derry City and Strabane District Council, under the banner of unity and progressive change,” she said.

“Thank you for your trust, your time and your support. Together let’s embrace our differences and build a new future together.”

Who is Lilian Seenoi Barr?

Ms Seenoi-Barr had already made history last year when she became the first black politician to be elected to any public office in Northern Ireland.

She retained her seat in the Foyleside ward with a victory in the 2023 election.

She came to Derry in 2010 with her son Brian and was granted refugee status.

Prior to that, her work in her native Kenya involved helping women and girls from the Massai tribe challenge the traditional tribal practices of early marriage and female genital mutilation.

It was work, she said, that came with “a lot of risk”.

Ms Seenoi-Barr’s son, Brian, has autism. She said, as his mother, she was concerned by the “many misconceptions and negative beliefs” around the condition in Africa.

That, coupled with the threats she had received, prompted Ms Seenoi Barr to leave Kenya.

Her experience as a refugee led her to set up her own charity, the North West Migrants Forum, in 2012 which supports migrants and asylum seekers.

She was involved in organising the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Guildhall Square.

What do people think about NI’s first black mayor?

For those from a minority ethnic background in Northern Ireland, Monday’s mayoral appointment is seen as a landmark moment in terms of representation and visibility in public office.

Andy George joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999 and is in his second term as president of the National Black Police Association.

He is the first Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer to hold the role.

There are just over 40 PSNI officers from ethnic minority backgrounds in a police service of just under 7,000 people.

“Lilian becoming mayor is a beacon of hope for the future and long overdue” he said.

“We have one of the most under-represented police services anywhere in the UK.

“The visibility of a mayoral role allows others from ethnic backgrounds to see how they can thrive.

“If you see it, you can be it. This is a moment in history”.

Derry nurse Beverly Simpson said seeing Northern Ireland’s first black mayor was highly emotional.

“It means everything. It means difference, change, inclusion, diversity and acceptance,” she said.

“I came to NI in 2005 and there weren’t many other black people.

“To see the growth from then until now with political inclusion is very significant.

“It’s a big journey for Northern Ireland.”

Beverly’s 15-year-old daughter Jada agreed.

“I feel so happy about it,” she said.

“When I was younger and even now, you rarely see black people represented at all so for a black woman to be become mayor is a really big step.

“I feel it will inspire others to get into politics and positions of influence and help Northern Ireland become a better place.”

‘Testament to progress’

Derry doctor Mukesh Chugh also works as a community volunteer in the city.

“This is a testament to the progress Northern Ireland has made in embracing diversity,” he said.

“I am delighted to see a step forward for better representation.

“I hope this period will be remembered not only for the first ethnic minority mayor but also one of the best mayors for the city”.