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A View North Belfast: the jewel in the Sinn Fein crown

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The news that Sinn Fein councilor Marie Moore was elected deputy mayor of Belfast last week comes as no surprise. Sinn Fein has 13 members on the council, a number equaled only by the Ulster Unionist Party. Over the years it has been held back from holding any "posts of authority," as the release announcing the news put it, thanks to fierce opposition from Unionists and loyalists on the council. But now the balance in Belfast is shifting. It was only a matter of time.

In 1997, the SDLP’s Alban Maginness became the first Catholic lord mayor of Belfast. That sent something of a tremor through the ranks of Unionism. After all, Belfast has been regarded as the "jewel of the crown" by Ulster Unionists since the 1880s when it served as a bulwark against the rising tide of Irish nationalism. In those days, its booming prosperity was used as proof that the Ulster Protestants could simply not afford to have any dealings with the Irish nationalist goal of a United Ireland, which to them promised only the poverty of an economic backwater. That too has changed.

The long march of Sinn Fein into the political establishment began in the corridors of Belfast’s City Hall, when in 1982 Alex Maskey was elected on to the council. In those days, the body which ran the capital of the North was dominated by Unionists of varying hues of orange. The biggest party was the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP, with 15 seats, followed by the UUP, with 13. Nationalists, represented by the SDLP and independents, had a total of just 10.

Unionists utterly ostracized Maskey. He was threatened, abused and greeted with howls when he attempted to speak. Ironically, the only Protestant there who would speak with him was George Seawright, the loyalist firebrand who was also something of a pariah among the "respectable." Seawright was murdered by the Irish People’s Liberation Organization in late 1987.

Sinn Fein made dramatic increases in its vote in local elections of May 1985, when seven of its members won places on the city council, surpassing the SDLP. Sinn Fein’s success was greeted with horror in the Protestant community. Unionist councilors began a concerted campaign to keep Sinn Fein councilors off the powerful sub-committees which ran such things as finance, parks, and community services. The ban persisted even after Sinn Fein had won another seat on the council in 1989, bringing its representation up to eight. Unionists, with their loyalist allies, attempted also to put a gag order on Sinn Fein members, preventing them from speaking at council meetings. They blocked Sinn Fein efforts to push through community improvement schemes in Catholic areas, and even imposed a ban on Sinn Fein councilors from attending "hospitality functions."

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"They don’t want to feed us," Councilor Mairtin O Muilleoir told the Irish Times.

However, the Shinners did not take all this lying down. Though denying the British government’s right to rule in Northern Ireland, the party was not shy about using the British court system to fight its legal battles. In February 1991, the party won a ruling in the High Court that the Unionist gag order was illegal. Two months later, another Sinn Fein-sponsored action succeeded in the court. It had accused the Unionists of discrimination in their refusal to fund the construction of a playground in a Catholic area of West Belfast. In late 1992, the party successfully challenged the No-Wine-And-Cheese-For-Shinners rule and won.

By then Unionists were lamenting the battering they had taken in the courts, which, according to O Muilleoir, had cost the Belfast taxpayer £50,000 pounds. One Unionist councilor confessed to the Irish Times: "I think that we have such a bad image that even when we are right, we are wrong. We need to do a major repair job."

Some improvement in Unionist behavior was already evident. They no longer blew trumpets in the council chamber every time a Sinn Fein councilor tried to speak. Physical threats were decreasing.

In November of 1992, I and a journalist from New York visited the City Hall one afternoon as the guest of O Muilleoir. He gave us a wonderful tour of the premises, like someone expecting one day to inherit them. The building has to be seen to be believed. The ornate marble (from Africa) and the spectacular dome make the place look like a somewhat smaller version of the Taj Mahal.

O Muilleoir was in fine form as he strode up the luxuriously carpeted marble staircase under the chandeliers to the gallery lined with the huge portraits done in oil of the city’s lord mayors, usually depicted alongside their wives. They fairly exuded Victorian bourgeois confidence — a stuffier-than-thou look. In those days what had they to worry about? If they weren’t pacing the marbled corridors of the City Hall, they were likely to be off in India lording it over other natives as vice-regals or governor generals. But Mr. O Muilleoir was confident that it would change too in Belfast as it had it the empire’s far-flung corners. He told us, as we mused on the smug gobs of one lord mayor after another, that one day, in the not very distant future, Sinn Fein would occupy the lord mayor’s ornate chair. However, he dismissed any possibility that a Shinner would ever want his portrait painted and hung on the wall there, among the others.

O Muilleoir has proven something of a prophet. Though his party has had its ups and downs, its political progress has been fairly steady. Paisley’s party has gone into decline in Belfast, with less than half of what it had in 1981. The SDLP has long ago been left behind by the Sinn Fein surge. Only the UUP can compete with Sinn Fein — a remarkable situation for a party that did not fought a local election in Northern Ireland until 1982.

The Unionists, of course, would do everything in their power to prevent a Sinn Fein lord mayor. But then every other attempt they have launched against the party since the early 1980s has rebounded on them, making them look rather ridiculous. The next local elections are slated for 2001. And it’s not a matter of science fiction to predict that by then Belfast, the jewel of the crown, with a possible a Nationalist majority, could wake up to find itself with a lord mayor who carries a tricolor.

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