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Thursday, 6 June, 2002, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
Presiding over a divided city
Belfast has elected its first republican lord mayor.

BBC NI's political correspondent Martina Purdy assesses the impact of Alex Maskey's election on a council that is still to elect a deputy lord mayor following a walkout of unionist councillors.

In 1997, the local government election brought a political earthquake - the end of unionist control at Belfast City Hall.

But it wasn't until now that the aftershock was felt - the election of a Sinn Fein lord mayor.

With the help of the Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power at Belfast council, Alex Maskey was elected to cheers from his supporters - and to unionist jeers.

"You're not wanted in this city," shouted the former DUP Lord Mayor Eric Smyth across the chamber.

His words hardly caused a ripple, drowned out by the applause of republicans in the gallery, among them Sinn Fein MLA for West Beflast Sue Ramsey.


I think that empty chair beside Alex Maskey shows how isolated and divisive a figure he is

Nigel Dodds DUP

Republicans could hardly hide their glee as the chain of office was placed around Mr Maskey's neck by councillors Margaret Walsh of the SDLP and Sinn Fein's Tom Hartley.

Ironically, the Lord Mayorship was bestowed on Belfast in 1892 by Queen Victoria, a fact masked by Sinn Fein's pride that another British bastion had finally fallen to republicans.

To a waiting media, Mr Maskey declared that his election was "almost the last hurdle to complete the task of making Belfast City Council truly a council for all the people."

Mr Maskey went on to appeal to all parties including unionists to help him make the city a fairer, more prosperous place.

But it seems Mr Maskey may have to rule alone.

'Divisive figure'

The post of deputy remains vacant. The unionists stomped out of the chamber, rather than nominate one of their own.

And Mr Maskey's request for a nomination to the deputy's post from among the remaining Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance councillors was met with silence.

Speaking outside Belfast City Hall, the DUP's Nigel Dodds said unionists were determined not to help the new lord mayor.

"I think that empty chair beside Alex Maskey shows how isolated and divisive a figure he is," he said.

"It illustrates no one is going to lend the veneer of credibility and democracy to someone who is part and parcel of a republican movement which has murdered and continues to murder people on the streets of Belfast."

As he spoke a group of Sinn Fein supporters gathered at the gates of City Hall, demanding Alex Maskey come out to greet them, while across the city unionists seethed at the thought of Lord Mayor Maskey.

Whatever the future holds for the new Lord Mayor, one thing is certain: he is presiding over a deeply divided city.

That is one thing that has not changed since 1892.

See also:

06 Jun 02 | N Ireland
05 Jun 02 | N Ireland
31 May 02 | N Ireland
25 Jun 01 | N Ireland
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