Maskey had been widely praised by trade unionists, community workers and others for his repeated attempts to stretch out the hand of reconciliation to the Ulster Unionists and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party during his year as Lord Mayor – attempts that were rebuffed at every turn.
He attended more than 1,000 social and civic events, including the annual assembly of the Presbyterian Church, during his year in office – but said he deeply regretted not having a unionist deputy during his mayoral year. (Both parties refused to nominate one in protest at Sinn Fein gaining the office.)
A 52-year-old grandfather, former docker and amateur boxer, Maskey has only one kidney and half his small intestine is missing after two failed loyalist murder bids. A close friend was shot dead in a third failed attempt by the UDA to kill him.
Belfast has now elected an SDLP councilor, Martin Morgan, as lord mayor after the two unionist parties failed to agree a joint candidate. As Maskey left office, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said it had been an “annus horribilis” and the city was “well rid” of him.
During his year of office, Maskey broke a republican taboo by leading the Sinn Fein council group at a World War I commemoration at Belfast City Hall, laying a laurel wreath in memory of the dead.
Unionists condemned him, saying it was an unofficial commemoration and that he had insulted the dead by laying a laurel wreath instead of the traditional wreath of poppies, made by the Royal British Legion.
Maskey admitted he faced criticism from republicans. “This decision was made soon after I was elected as the first Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast and I suppose some of my own supporters were not prepared for it,” he said.
“I did consult widely on the matter and talked it over with my party leaders, Gerry Adams and Mitchel McLaughlin, and with individual unionists. I knew it was a decision that was never going to please everyone.
“But I went through with it and looking back I appreciate the support I got from within my own community and from many unionists. I did not want a pat on the back for what I had done, but I received a huge amount of mail, a lot of it from my own people, complimentary and critical.
“My mother’s father had been a soldier in the First World War and when I visited the Somme battlefield in France I found it a very moving experience and felt it was important that I attended as lord mayor of Belfast,” he said.
Later in the year, in the run-up to Armistice Day in November, Maskey held a reception for Royal British Legion members and, recently, he joined the Church of Ireland Dean of Belfast at a cross-community service to remember the Protestant and Catholic dead of World War I.
He said one of the highlights of his lord mayoral year was the visit to the opening of the Presbyterian General Assembly. “I was very impressed by the dignity of the occasion and pleased by the welcome that I received from the church people,” he said.
He also ran into controversy when he decided to place the Irish tricolor in his office alongside the union flag. Maskey said this was to honor both traditions in the city but unionists were furious.
Leaving office, he said he was happy with what he had achieved as Belfast’s first republican lord mayor but he believes more could have been done to bridge the sectarian divide in the city had a unionist been standing alongside him.
“It was a big disappointment that I was not able to visit unionist and loyalist areas of the Shankill, Sandy Row and East Belfast in my capacity as lord mayor, but, for their own reasons, unionist councilors were not prepared to give me their support and it caused problems,” he said.
“In the City Hall there is co-operation between all of the parties – republican, nationalist and unionist – at council and committee levels and the two high sheriffs during my year as lord mayor, who were both unionists, did carry out various civic functions which I was unable or prevented from attending,” he said.
He added he did what he could to foster better relations in Belfast and that he was encouraged by “the tremendous amount of goodwill” he received as lord mayor from grassroots unionists and people who did not share his views.
“I certainly regret that what happened in this society over the past 30 years had to happen. But we did not have the political leadership; governments were not up to the task; community leaders were not up to the task.”
Maskey was first elected to the council in 1983 and said Belfast was a very solid unionist city, with a council to reflect that reality. “There was a lot of sectarianism on the council at that time, but I was determined to fully represent my constituents as best I could.
“Belfast is now a much more mixed city, with a very politically mixed council but, every working day in the City Hall, unionist and nationalist councilors meet to conduct business and we somehow manage to get things done,” he said.