By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The first-ever Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast is expected to take office today after the cross-community Alliance Party decided to back the republican candidate, Alex Maskey.
With Belfast City Council nearly evenly split between 25 Unionist councilors and 25 non-Unionist (including Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance), the decision should make Maskey’s election virtually certain.
Sinn Fein is the largest single party on the council, with 14 seats, but has been deprived of its turn in the mayoral chair after Alliance voted last year not to support its bid.
Alliance, which has three votes on the council, said it had refused to support Sinn Fein last year as a protest over the IRA’s failure to begin decommissioning its weapons, but this year changed its mind “after a lot of soul searching.”
Maskey, who has been the face of Sinn Fein on the Belfast City Council for almost 20 years, welcomed the party’s decision and promised to work with all sides to reduce sectarian tensions if he is voted in.
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“If elected, I will work with everyone in City Hall and use my office to facilitate all sides,” he said. “I will work with them in a sustained manner to address difficulties in interface areas and will not walk away at crucial moments or dip in and out like others have done when problems arise.”
The leader of the Alliance group on the City Council, David Alderdice, said that despite concerns over republicans’ refusal to back Northern Ireland’s police service and the arrests of three republican-linked Irishmen in Colombia last summer, charged with aiding the FARC rebels, Sinn Fein was regarded “for better or for worse . . . as part of the democratic process”.
To support its decision, the Alliance cited the facts that Sinn Fein is already the largest party in City Hall, is the largest Nationalist party in terms of Westminster votes, and is also expected to overtake the SDLP in the next assembly election.
The party said in a statement: “We believe that by doing this, we will be consolidating peace by wedding Sinn Fein even closer to the democratic process. Once again, Alliance is taking a risk for peace.”
The move prompted immediate anger from Unionists. Assembly member Norman Boyd, chief whip of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party, said people would be “dismayed and angry” at the Alliance support for Sinn Fein.
Boyd said that for more than 30 years the Provisional IRA had bombed, maimed and murdered many innocent citizens of Belfast, caused millions of pounds of damage to businesses, and caused the loss of thousands of jobs. He called the Alliance decision “disgraceful,” adding that it proved the party endorses the policies of republicans and was no friend to Unionists.
Middle East talks
Meanwhile, the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, Ulster Unionist minister Reg Empey, Sinn FTin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, and David Ervine, the PUP leader, met Isr’li and Palestinian politicians in Britain for confidential talks.
The talks, which were sponsored by the London Guardian newspaper, were designed to help both sides learn from each other about building peace and lasted two days.
McGuinness said it was gratifying to be “able to offer some insight into our experiences of conflict resolution to the Palestinian and Isr’li people.”
“While all conflicts have their own unique causal circumstances the principles necessary to resolve differences are fundamentally similar,” he said. “Conflict resolution is never easy and there will be setbacks while the process is bedding down and old foes deal with the hurt and suffering that they have inflicted on each other.
“But it is essential that dialogue based on inclusivity and equality be established and channels of communication are kept open even in the most trying of circumstances.”
McGuinness was also involved in a development at the Bloody Sunday Tribunal last week. British security services have applied for special restrictions on the evidence of former MI5 agent David Shayler.
The application calls for the inquiry to be cleared and for the lawyers of the families to present a list of prepared questions. It will give the British secret service at least an hour to examine and vet the transcript of Shayler’s evidence.
Families of victims of Bloody Sunday criticized it as an attempt by the British security establishment to frustrate the workings of the tribunal. John Kelly, brother of Michael Kelly, who was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, said, “This inquiry was set up restore public confidence but now they are trying to erode it once more.”
Shayler has issued a statement to the inquiry concerning an IRA double agent code-named “Infliction” who claimed that Martin McGuinness fired the first shot on Jan. 30, 1972, when 14 men were killed by the security forces.
McGuinness has denied the claim and questioned the existence of the agent.
“The revelation that MI5 is attempting to dictate and control the content of evidence to be given by a number of alleged military witnesses to the Saville Inquiry is unacceptable,” he said. “The lengths to which the British military and political establishment will go in order to continue its coverup has no bounds. I supported the families quest for the truth since the beginning of their campaign and I will continue to support them in what ever course they choose to follow.”
Shayler, 34, made headlines last year when he was arrested under the Official Secrets Act after returning from France. He was charged following a newspaper article in which he claimed MI5 kept files on former Home Secretary Jack Straw and former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson.