6 June 1997 Edition
All changed in Belfast
But old habits die hard in other Councils
By Mick Naughton, Martha McClelland and Brian Campbell
The sea change that occurred in Ireland's second largest city after the local government elections was dramatically reflected in the first council meeting of Belfast City Council last Monday 2 June. The first nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast was elected after Sinn Féin's 13 councillors voted in support of SDLP councillor Alban Maginness, leaving the DUP's Harry Smith trailing by four votes.
Sinn Féin Councillor Alex Maskey said his party had lived up to its pre-election commitment to change the city forever. ``We said we would ensure that unionist dominance was over and that Sinn Féin was the only genuine engine for change in City Hall. Well today we have fulfilled that promise. This city belongs to all of its people not the few bigots who have marginalised our people for decades. We are now moving onwards and upwards and are confident of having a major input in the real power of the council, the committees.''.
Unionists reacted furiously to the sight of Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey and Maginness moving forward to break the historic mould. Earlier Ian Paisley had described Maginness as the ``pan-nationalist nominee''.
Calling it ``a new start for all the people of this city,'' Gerry Adams commended all those who contributed to the historic event. He also remembered the price paid by party members and their families. ``This historic breakthrough has occurred primarily as a consequence of the sacrifices that our party has made and the loyalty and determination of 30,000 people in Belfast who voted for us. The days of unionist domination are over for ever and Sinn Féin is absolutely determined to ensure that they will never return,'' he said.
In Omagh Sinn Féin and the SDLP have six seats apiece with the DUP three, one behind the UUP. Significantly Sinn Féin received almost two thousand more votes than the SDLP in the Omagh District.
Despite this the SDLP at the first council meeting choose to ally themselves with the unionists in electing the Chair and Vice Chair.
An angry Seán Clarke questioned the SDLP tactic: ``How can nationalists invest trust in a party which tries to isolate Sinn Féin, choosing instead to get into bed with the local representatives of David Trimble and Ian Paisley?
``The SDLP are happy to wheel and deal with Trimble's party as long as they themselves get a few crumbs from that table. Their action makes it clear that Sinn Féin alone is willing to strengthen the nationalist agenda.''
In Fermanagh District Council Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party with an independent, Davy Kettyles, holding the balance of power. Independent Patrick McCaffrey took the position of chair.
Gerry McHugh was elected to the council for the second time and he had a double celebration; his wife gave birth during the last minutes of canvassing.
Also obtaining an excellent vote was local farmer Robin Martin, the party's representative of Central Borders Area Network. Two popular Sinn Féin women stood for the first time and both were elected. 32 year old Ruth Lynch, and Geraldine Cassidy, a full time student. Brian Mc Caffrey brought in Sinn Féin's fifth seat.
For the first time, Sinn Féin gained representation on the standing committees of the Downpatrick based council and marked another breakthrough in an SDLP heartland. Frank McDowell and Patrick McGreevy thanked the Sinn Féin voters and pledged they will be building upon the new supporters who worked in all parts of the county, from the holiday town of Newcastle to the fishing port of Ardglass.
Anger swept Derry this week as the SDLP continued to exclude Sinn Féin from the position of Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the 13th year in succession. SDLP Deputy Mayor Martin Bradley became Mayor, while the DUP's Joe Millar, an ex-RUC man now facing charges arising from Drumcree last year, became Deputy Mayor.
Not even blushing as he claimed a commitment to ``proportionality and partnership amongst all traditions...reflecting our civic vision,'' the SDLP's Mark Durkan tried to justify their political apartheid by imposing an electoral policy from Europe, the d'Hondt and Saint Lague system. This, he claimed, would allow rotation of these offices amongst ``all traditions''
Mitchel McLaughlin identified this as ``a sordid pact with Unionists,'' which ignores the mandate of 12,000 Derry citizens who voted for Sinn Féin.
Proposing Mary Nelis for Mayor, McLaughlin pointed out that ``this is the 4th consecutive term that Sinn Féin has been the second largest party on the Council, and never been afforded their democratic right to hold the top two Council positions.'' He denied there was any `principle' forcing the SDLP to refuse power-sharing: in Belfast, Fermanagh and Strabane, power was shared. Nor did the absence of an IRA cessation handcuff the SDLP. During the ceasefire, the SDLP still operated their apartheid policy.
Seconding Mary's nomination, Gerry O hEára said, ``By continuing to operate a policy of exclusion, the SDLP are taking a step back into the past when this Council should be leading this City forward into the next millennium.
``The SDLP argue for their system on the basis of sharing power with all traditions. If republicanism isn't a tradition in Derry, I don't know what is,'' he said.
Eight years of exclusion of the nationalist community ended on Tuesday night in Strabane. Nationalist councillors took back control of the Council, increasing from 8 to 10 on the 16 member council. SDLP councillor Eugene McMenamin was elected Chair and Castlederg Sinn Féin councillor Charlie McHugh Vice-Chair.
The previous Chair, Ulster Unionist Edward Turner, was notorious both for denying nationalists representation and essential services, and for the financial scandals in the Council during this time of Unionist monopoly, uncovered by government auditors. Both Sinn Féin and SDLP councillors complained about discrimination against the nationalist community, on everything from closing down a swimming pool serving a nationalist area to provision of urgently needed safe playgrounds.
In his acceptance speech, Charlie McHugh pointed out that Sinn Féin councillors had been removed from the Council Chambers by the RUC on the direction of the Unionist chairperson. However, nationalists were not going to repeat the apartheid policies of Unionists. ``Our aim is to achieve a situation where all representatives of every party agree to work together in a spirit of equality to promote the best interest of this district, and as far as possible leave their individual party political baggage outside the Council Chambers. If and when the Unionists demonstrate their willingness to enter into this spirit of cooperation, there is no reason why they shouldn't share offices and Chairs of committee.'' In this spirit, the new Council has nominated a number of unionists to positions on the outside bodies, such as the Health and Social Services Board.
Newry and Mourne
There was anger in the Council chamber in Newry on Monday night when the SDLP and Unionists once again divided the top positions between themselves. With 12 SDLP (down 3), 8 Sinn Féin (up 3), 6 Unionists (down 1) and 4 Independents (up 1), Sinn Féin argued that each of those four groupings should share the roles of Chair and Vice Chair. But the SDLP, while saying they were committed to power-sharing, said they would not support any Sinn Féin nominee for Chair or Vice Chair without an IRA ceasefire.
Sinn Féin Councillor Davy Hyland called it a ``sham powersharing. It is really a cosy carve-up between the SDLP and Unionists. The SDLP are disenfranchising our voters and they will learn a lesson at the next election.''