It would be alarming for any newly elected mayor of any major city to hear in his first week of office that a wall between two warring communities is to be almost doubled in height and that plans to build another wall in another part of the city are going ahead next week. Yet, that is the case with Alex Maskey, the first Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast.
After serious disturbances in East Belfast around the embattled Catholic Short Strand area, British troops began raising the already existing wall. Meanwhile, in North Belfast, it was announced that plans to build a new wall around the embattled Catholic girls school of Holy Cross are to go forward, much to the anger of Catholic parents, with the foundations being laid on June 17. If the plans to build the latter go ahead, it will mean that Maskey will be the mayor of a city that boasts 28 peace walls.
To call them “peace walls” is typically misleading, of course. They are not the product of peace but of the failure of peace — at least in certain areas where working-class communities of Catholic and Protestants border each other. They do not even bring peace, merely a measure of security, making it somewhat harder for those on the other side to hurl bricks, bottles and bombs into the enemy’s territory.
Indeed, it is a daunting prospect for any mayor to face. But it is especially problematic for a member of Sinn Fein, the party that roughly half the population of Belfast thinks is one and the same as the IRA. They cannot forget that the IRA spent the greater part of 30 years trying to wreck the city over which Maskey now presides, his chain of office around his neck to prove it. One of the conflict’s greatest ironies surely must be the fact that Maskey will now, presumably, be touring Europe and the U.S. to encourage people and companies to invest money in the city that the IRA spent so long blowing up.
Maskey has said he will represent the whole city, not just the republican part of it. That is indeed his job. Representing Belfast means representing its unionist traditions as well as its nationalist traditions. If there was a test to show whether Sinn Fein really supports parity of esteem, then this is definitely it.
Let us all hope that he passes it.
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