By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — As unionists jeered, wagged their fingers and walked out of the city debating chamber, a fellow Sinn Fein councilor put the heavy gold mayoral chain around the shoulders of an Irish republican for the first time in history as Alex Maskey was declared Belfast’s lord mayor last Wednesday, June 5.
Maskey received 26 votes of support, beating the Ulster Unionist’s Chris McGimpsey with 15 votes and the DUP candidate, Robin Newton, with 10. The Alliance Party’s three council seats had tipped the balance.
There was a resounding cheer from the packed public gallery, where the new lord mayor’s wife, Liz, along with friends and supporters watched as Maskey assumed the mayoral seat at the head of the council chamber.
Last year, a bid by the 50-year-old West Belfast assemblyman, who has been a city councilor for more than 19 years, was thwarted by Alliance, who voted for the anti-Agreement Sammy Wilson, of the DUP, in a protest over the IRA’s failure to begin decommissioning.
This year, despite enormous pressure, which included a loyalist picket on his home, the Alliance Party leader on Belfast city council, David Alderdice, held firm and his party cast their votes for Maskey.
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As he was elected, Maskey vowed to work with all sides to reduce ongoing sectarian tensions. He said he wanted his year in office to be one of “fair play, equality, tolerance, inclusivity.”
There was one immediate problem. The UUP, whico would normally have expected to nominate a deputy lord mayor, is refusing to do so. McGimpsey said that, if the party did nominate, it would allow Maskey to be absent from controversial occasions, like royal visits, with the unionist deputizing for him.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP voted to postpone the election of deputy lord mayor to a future date, allowing the UUP to reconsider its refusal to nominate for the position, although it seems unlikely unionists will have second thoughts.
“I will work with everyone and use my office to facilitate all sides,” declared Maskey on his election. “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.”
Anticipating a Unionist backlash, Alderdice reminded councilors that they elected a loyalist, the PUP’s Hugh Smyth, as lord mayor before there was a UVF cease-fire.
Maskey immediately said that he wanted to be known as “mayor” not “lord mayor” but declined to say if he would attend British war commemorations or royal visits until he had had time to consider all points of view.
“My election represents a landmark occasion in the development of the city of Belfast,” he said. “For too long the image of Belfast has been tarnished by the inability of the City Council to operate in a manner characterized by fair play and equality.
“My appointment has to some degree consigned many of the past inequalities and discriminatory practices to the annals of history. My pledge as newly elected mayor is to work for and with all of the citizens of Belfast. I will ensure that all people are treated equally.”
Maskey, a former dock worker and amateur boxer lives in West Belfast. He was interned twice in the 1970s and was elected a Sinn Fein councilor in 1983. Since then he has seen Sinn Fein grow from one councilor to its current tally of 14 and twice become the party with the biggest share of the popular vote in Belfast.
He has survived several attempts on his life. In 1987, he received a shotgun blast in the stomach on his doorstep in a UDA attack. He lost half a kidney, half his stomach and half his bowel during operations to save his life