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13 June 2002 Edition

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McCrea benefits from Sinn Féin commitment to equality

In stark contrast to the refusal of unionist councillors in Belfast to elect a deputy mayor in protest at the election of Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey, unionist councillors elsewhere have agreed power-sharing deals.

In what will be viewed as perhaps the most unlikely of these arrangements, the DUP's Willie McCrea has become the first unionist chair of Magherafelt District Council in 20 years, with Sinn Féin's backing. Sinn Féin's John Kelly was elected as his deputy at the meeting on Tuesday night.

"Willie McCrea has complained bitterly for the last 20 years that he has been denied the top job on Maghrafelt District Council. But tonight he is set to benefit from a Sinn Féin initiative to ensure that, in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, all council jobs are shared out on the basis of equality," said Kelly.

"Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin has set out its stall to not just promote equality but to make it a reality. Sinn Féin has had the courage to take initiatives that have not necessarily found support among our political allies or opponents.

"Willie fully deserves his chance as Chairperson of Magherafelt Council and even at this stage I offer him a warm welcome and encouragement to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Hughes, who has conducted himself with dignity and political maturity throughout the year."

Elsewhere, Sinn Féin's Anne Brolly was elected deputy mayor of Limavady council, the first party representative to hold one of that body's two main positions, following a similar power-sharing deal. The SDLP's Danny O'Connor is the new deputy mayor of Larne Borough Council, another first for a nationalist representative.

Maskey attends Presbyterian General Assembly

Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey carried out his first two official engagements this week. When he attended the opening of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church on Monday night, 10 June, he was the first Sinn Féin representative to attend the body. Then on Tuesday night, 11 June, he was present at a Palestinian Cultural night in An Cultúrlann MacAdaim Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road.

Maskey's attendance at the opening of the Presbyterian General Assembly, attended by over 1,200 people, was not without controversy, with some unionists threatening to picket the event.

In the end, when Maskey arrived at Church House in Belfast City Centre, he was confronted by just one protestor.

All eyes were on Maskey's visit given the negative unionist reaction to the Sinn Féin councillor's election as Lord Mayor of Belfast last Wednesday, 5 June.

Some members of the Presbyterian Church itself objected to the invite while the Reverend Ian Paisley attacked the Presbyterian Church accusing it, "of plumbing new depths", by issuing the invitation. "The fact that the Irish Presbyterian Church are to receive, without protest, a Sinn Féin representative shows the depth to which ecumenism brings a church," he stormed.

The Church said the invitation is a longstanding one issued to the sitting Lord Mayor of Belfast and it wasn't prepared to withdraw it.

The incoming Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Russell Birney speaking to the media said that he was aware Maskey was taking a risk in accepting the invitation but that Presbyterians would make him feel welcome.

For his part, Maskey said: "This is an invitation that has been long standing to all Belfast mayors. I am delighted to be able to take up this opportunity.

"As I have said I will do my best to be representative of all the citizens of Belfast," concluded Maskey.

On Tuesday, Maskey attended a Palestinian Cultural night in An Cultúrlann MacAdaim Ó Fiaich on Tuesday 11 June.

The event, jointly hosted by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Falls Community Council, saw many members of the Palestinian community in Belfast coming together to meet people from West Belfast.

"We see too often the negative side of the conflict and the turmoil of the people trapped by it. This event will highlight the other side of the coin, the vibrant culture that is inherent in the Palestinian Community that is sadly overlooked, said organiser Feilim Ó hAdhmaill.

During his speech, Maskey announced that in his time as mayor he intends to set up a civic forum aimed at bringing people from all ethnic minorities living in the city into the life of Belfast.


A mayor for all the people

"I'd like to propose Councillor Maskey." With those few but powerful words, Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley brought to an end over 100 years of anti-republican unionist domination of Belfast City Council.

A few minutes later, at approximately 6:48pm on Wednesday 6 June, Alex Maskey was deemed Mayor of Belfast, the first ever Sinn Féin member to hold the post.

As Tom Hartley (leader of Sinn Féin's 14 councillors and the main negotiator with the SDLP and the Alliance Party over the last three years to secure this historic first) placed the chain of office around Maskey's neck, we in the gallery took to our feet and burst into prolonged applause.

The scenes of jubilation in the gallery were akin to those I had participated in a few hours earlier in Belfast's Cultúrlann when Robbie Keane scored Ireland's equaliser against Germany in the 92nd minute. The sense of euphoria in the gallery was exactly the same as that which greeted Keane's goal. Keane was two minutes into three minutes of extra time when he scored his goal, Alex was at least eight years into extra time before his big score.

The dome of the City Hall didn't come crashing down; the council chamber wasn't swallowed up by a natural disaster, but sitting above the ranks of unionist councillors, some 25 of them, I could feel the waves from their bodies registering the impact of this political earthquake very high on their political Richter scales.

I had floated on a sea of elation more than walked to the City Hall at 5:30pm that afternoon. It would take another 30 hours before my nerves would finally settle. They were assailed by new heroes of a footballing and political variety: Robbie Keane stormed through at 2:47pm; Alec Maskey at 6:48pm and the following morning a new Irish team took to the Leinster House field at 10:15am, when Sinn Féin's five TDs, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris, Arthur Morgan, Sean Crowe and Aengus Ó Snodaigh took their well earned parliamentary seats.

Perched high above the council chamber, I scanned those attending this remarkable occasion. Liz Maskey, Alex's partner, was there. Liz was one of the first women interned in the1970s. Their two sons and granddaughter sat alongside Alex's parents. Alex's brothers and sisters also attended. A full turnout for an event of which a family could be proud.

Alex's family, particularly Liz and the boys, now young men, had endured much at the hands of the British Crown forces and their loyalist allies over the last 20 years. Alex's home had been raided many times; he had been arrested and abused. He had been severely wounded in a loyalist gun attack and the British agent, Brian Nelson had tried to kill him.

A family friend, Alan Lundy, was shot dead while helping Alex to put additional security measures on his house. Alex described the aftermath of the killing as one of the darkest and most difficult periods of his life.

There is no doubt in my mind that Alex was selected for special attention. He represented the public spirit of Belfast's republican community; a blow against him was a blow against them.

Sean McKnight, Belfast's second Sinn Féin councillor elected (Maskey was the first), observed the proceedings. No doubt Sean reflected on more troublesome times in the chamber when a unionist chorus of denunciation greeted the very sound of a Sinn Féin voice. Now they were practically muted in the face of a Sinn Féin Mayor.

There was a mixed bag of republicans sitting alongside me. Phil McCullough, a long time comrade of Alex's, one the longest serving internees and the man who introduced me to politics when I was interned in 1972; Jackie McMullan, former hunger striker, blanketman and life-sentenced prisoner; Junior May, now chairperson of West Belfast Sinn Féin, also a former blanketman; and 'Bik' McFarlane their former O/C in the H-Blocks.

There was also Fred Heatley, a gaeilgeoir and chairperson of Alex's former cumann, which worked tirelessly to elect him several times to the council and the Assembly over the last 20 years. And Mark Sykes, who was seriously injured in the bookies shooting on the Ormeau Road; five of his neighbours were killed in the attack.

Also peering over the balcony was Assembly member Sue Ramsey, fresh from West Belfast's selection convention the night before. She was chosen to run again in the Assembly elections next May, an acknowledgement of the sterling work she has done. Sitting alongside her was Evelyn Glenholmes, attending her first ever mayoral election. Her radiant smile said it all.

Sitting beside Evelyn was Chrissie Huddleston, who lost two husbands during the conflict. Her first husband, Colm Mulgrew, was shot dead by loyalists and her second, John, died from a heart attack while defending the area from a loyalist incursion into their home area of Newington last year.

On the floor of the chamber I saw Sinn Féin Councillor Danny Lavery. The Lavery family had paid dearly for their republican beliefs. Loyalists killed his brother Martin injured another brother Kevin and killed Danny's nephew Sean, son of Bobby, who was a Belfast City Councillor at the time of his son's death. Representing and voting for Sinn Féin is a life and death affair.

Sinn Féin Councillor and former Deputy Mayor of Belfast, Marie Moore, wiped a tear from her eye as she watched Alex don the chain. It was an emotional moment for us all. A few years earlier, Marie had broken through the undemocratic barrier blocking republicans taking office.

The previous Lord Mayor, Jim Rodgers, spoke eloquently about his year in office. His theme had been 'bringing people together'. But he couldn't bring himself to fulfil his last task in office, the placing of the Mayor's chain around Alex's neck, a long established protocol for an outgoing mayor. Instead, Rodgers ran for political cover.

Later, however, he had no difficulty explaining to the media why he served with his Deputy Hugh Smyth of the UVF's PUP or his backing of Frank McCoubrey of the UFF's UDP for the same post a few years ago. But then, loyalists' only crime is killing Catholics.

Watching Alex in the Mayor's chair taking his first council meeting, I had to pinch myself several times to make sure I was not dreaming.

The first and last bastion of unionism in Ireland's second city, Belfast, had fallen. It came in with the roar of guns from a powerful British lion after partition and went out last Wednesday with a whimper of protest from Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who could only muster the weak allegation of fascism.

In protest at Alex's election, Wilson and most of the other unionists left the Chamber for all of five minutes. When they returned, council business politely continued and unionists gave Alex his full title.

Alex, in keeping with the long established tradition, invited everyone back to his office for refreshments. It was at this point that an unforeseen hiccup occurred. The mayor's hospitality suite not only ran out of glasses, they also ran out of draught Guinness.

Mingling as I was in the mayor's parlour, I noticed Sammy Wilson, unionist stalwart of the DUP, holding court with a number of journalists. He was denouncing Alex Maskey in the most colourful of language. And as he did so he hungrily partook in the fare that the mayor had offered his guests. Perhaps Sinn Féin should 'food bomb' rather than 'love bomb' unionist leaders.

Later that evening on my way to Cumann Na Meirleach, the Felons Club, to welcome Alex to West Belfast, I called into a local garage to buy a disposable camera. "Going to a party?" a member of staff asked and I told her where I was going. She then told me that earlier that night an elderly woman had bought a dozen bundles of sticks She was lighting a bonfire in her back garden in celebration. One of many, I thought to myself.

A sight I never thought I would see in my life greeted a few friends and me at the Felons. There parked outside the Club were the Mayor's official cars and walking out of the Felons with his Chain of Office was Alex.

He had just left one institution, the City Hall, where unionists were reeling and visited another institution, the Felons, whose patrons have withstood many blows prior to and since the IRA's first cessation in August 1994. It was right that Alex's first visit should be to this bastion of republicanism.

The old order's time really is fading. That is the main message from Alex's election. The signals have been there for quite some time and are still there, impacting at various levels of society. Yet the leaders of unionism are in denial. They stand, brush in hand, trying to hold back the tide of change, while all around them it is passing them by.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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