Category: Archive

Now that Sinn Fein rules to roost . . .

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

“You’re not wanted in this city,” Unionists councilors cried as they stormed out of the Belfast City Hall last week in reaction to the election of Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein to the position of Lord Mayor — a first in both the history of the party and the history of the city. The cry was in a real sense a cry of impotence. But it was also a denial of political reality. Sinn Fein is now not only the largest nationalist party in the city, it is the largest party. The problems it faced reaching this position might well pale before those it will now confront as Maskey tries to fulfill his promise of representing the whole city.

Traditionally, the party has boycotted such ceremonies as the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, in which so many Ulster men died, and the Remembrance Day ceremony on Nov. 11. As well, Mayor Maskey (he says he will drop the “Lord”) will be expected to greet visiting members of the royal family as well as officiate the marking of the queen’s birthday. Any refusal to accord these occasions their customary rituals will further anger Belfast Protestants (if that is possible), while if Sinn Fein does go ahead and abandon its republican attitudes, it will doubtless run afoul of its critics on the left of the movement who accuse it of selling out.

How Sinn Fein managed to achieve this takeover of Belfast in less than 20 years from the date when Alex Maskey became the first Sinn Fein councilor to win a seat on the city’s governing body is as much the story of a changing city as it is of a changing party.

For more than 100 years, Belfast was Unionism’s bulwark against the rising tide of Irish nationalism. Its Protestant working class, whose prosperity depended on the city’s bustling shipbuilding yards, factories, linen mills, and rope works, was the first line of defense — a solid political base for Unionism and hostile to any encroachment of nationalism in whatever shape or form.

Belfast helped defeat Home Rule with a massive show of loyalist strength in 1912. Its determination to maintain the link with Britain defied all republican attempts to either coerce or persuade it. During the upheavals between 1919 and 1922, its hostility helped convince Michael Collins that any attempt to duplicate the IRA’s campaign in Munster by extending its operations into Ulster would probably bring disaster upon the heads of the city’s embattled Catholic minority. Without the defiance of loyalist Belfast, the British government would probably not have considered partition an option.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

The IRA had a foothold in the Catholic working-class areas, but it was a precarious one. Any aggressive IRA action was sure to be met with a deadly loyalist response, targeting vulnerable Catholics. In Belfast, the IRA was forced in effect into the role of a Catholic defender force, something which made the IRA leadership uneasy, right into the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, had little or no presence in the city’s Catholic districts. In the 1918 election, which swept Sinn Fein to power throughout the country, Eamon de Valera ran as the Sinn Fein candidate for West Belfast and was soundly defeated by Joe Devlin, who stood for the Irish Parliamentary Party. In the years that followed, Sinn Fein made little headway in the city’s Catholic areas. After the demise of the IPP, Joe Devlin went on to lead the United Ireland League. Afterward, he would hold the West Belfast seat for decades in the name of the Nationalist Party. The district then became the power base of Harry Diamond. In the 1950s, the independent Labor candidate Jack Beaty, a Protestant, won the seat. It was a labor constituency, with Beaty being succeeded by Republican Labor members Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin. Fitt won West Belfast as the Republican Labor candidate in 1966. He held it for 17 years, 14 of them as a member of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, until he was ousted by Gerry Adams. But by 1983, the political landscape of West Belfast had changed drastically, and in ways which would herald changes throughout the city.

Turning points

Despite the outbreak of violence in 1969 and the rise of the Provisional IRA in Belfast, Sinn Fein remained a politically negligible force throughout the 1970s. Gradually, however a new generation of activists was taking over.

Brian Feeney, who teaches history at St. Mary’s College in West Belfast and has just published a history of Sinn Fein, “Sinn Fein: 100 Turbulent Years” (O’Brien Press, Dublin), sees two turning points. The first, he said was “the formation of the Belfast Executive of Sinn Fein in 1975-76, by Tom Hartley, Danny Morrison, Jim Gibney and Adams.” According to Feeney, Adams and his supporters had opposed the IRA cease-fire of 1974-75.

“Adams believed that if you have a cease-fire and you don’t have a political movement, you have nothing,” Feeney said. The younger men concentrated on building Sinn Fein, mainly organizing through the network of republican drinking clubs.

The second turning point came in 1981, thanks to the hunger strikes. The most publicized political victory was of course that of hunger striker Bobby Sands, who showed Sinn Fein what the possibilities might be. But nearer home, in the Belfast local elections in May that year, which Sinn Fein did not contest, two members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party did and were elected, both in the West Belfast area. Sinn Fein took note. When a local council seat in West Belfast fell vacant in 1983, ex-internee Alex Maskey stood for it and won. He was Sinn Fein’s first councilor in Belfast since Partition. Little did anyone realize it at the time, but he would become the party’s first lord mayor of Belfast 19 years later.

The political mood of Catholics in West Belfast had changed, mostly as a result of the events of 1981. Fitt had opposed the hunger strike vehemently, and it cost him his seat, and his political career. The man who had triumphed over Unionism in 1966, and represented the strong working-class ethos of the Falls Road for so many decades, could muster only about 300 votes when he stood in his old council ward in the New Lodge-Docks area.

The 1983 Westminster election was no doubt another turning point. Adams, Sinn Fein’s president, ran against Fitt and Joe Hendron of the SDLP, fully aware of what had happened the last time a Sinn Fein leader had stood in 1918 — when de Valera had lost to Devlin. Adams’s victory confirmed the view that a major political shift had occurred.

Sean McKnight followed Maskey into Belfast City Hall in 1984. In 1985, the party won seven seats on the council, overtaking the SDLP, much to the latter’s amazement.

“The amazing thing is how they galvanized the nationalist working-class voters to vote,” Feeney said.

One of the ways was explaining to people what they had a right to claim. Sinn Fein party workers went door to door explaining the kinds of benefits that the voter could claim from the state. Feeney quotes a member of Fianna Fail saying to him: “They’re like Fianna Fail in the 1930s.”

Changing city

Beyond West Belfast, the city was changing. As the 1980s went by, more and more Protestants began leaving Belfast for North Down or East Antrim. Between 1976 and 1992, the Protestant population in North Belfast fell from 112,000 to 56,000, and in the Shankill area — perhaps the bastion of Belfast loyalism — from 76,000 to 27,000. Meanwhile, the Catholic population was expanding into areas like South Belfast, including its most exclusive zone, the Malone Road where another Catholic church had to be constructed to accommodate the new intake of upwardly mobile Catholics.

Maskey is the second Catholic to become Belfast lord mayor in the last seven years — the SDLP’s Alban Maginness being the first in 1995. Maginness had no trouble with the ceremonious occasions. The danger for Maskey is that he is presiding over an increasingly divided city, as is indicated by its 27 peace walls. A large section of the population still see themselves as loyal subjects of the crown. The fear is that anything that the new mayor does, such as not attending a commemoration event, which can be interpreted as snub to them, will only deepen those divisions, adding to the already incendiary atmosphere.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese