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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
Maskey marks Somme with wreath
Lord Mayor Alex Maskey
The ceremony took place at Belfast City Hall
Belfast's republican lord mayor has marked the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with the laying of a laurel wreath ahead of the main ceremony on Monday.

It is believed to be the first time a republican political representative in Northern Ireland has laid a wreath in memory of those killed in a First World War battle.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said he would not attend the main ceremony.

Instead, Mr Maskey, accompanied by party colleagues, laid a wreath at the Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall at about 0900 BST.


This is a major step for republicans and nationalists on this island

Alex Maskey

Upon reaching the Cenotaph, he stepped forward alone and laid the laurel wreath.

Mr Maskey then retreated a few steps before standing for a minute's silence before departing.

He said he had support for the decision both within and outside his own party.

After laying the wreath Mr Maskey said: "This is a major step for republicans and nationalists on this island.

"I hope that this initiative will be seen at face value and as a positive gesture."

He said he was laying the wreath in memory of, and in tribute to, all men who died at the Somme and during all of the First World War.

Mr Maskey added that he would be asking the council to debate a new form of civic commemoration for all those who died.

Irish republicans in Northern Ireland have always refused to attend Cenotaph wreath laying ceremonies, saying they were too closely associated with Britain's military establishment.

Mr Maskey laid his wreath before the official remembrance ceremony at 1100 BST.

Former Belfast lord mayor Sammy Wilson accused Sinn Fein of insulting the memory of those who died.

"Alex Maskey made it into a political football for his own ends," he said.

"He refused to step back from the cul-de-sac which republicans have backed themselves into.

"In doing so, he has insulted people and shown that he is not for for office."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Reid has welcomed "changing nationalist attitudes" to remembering the dead of the first World War.

He has described it as "a sign of encouragement and hope for the future".

Equality pledge

When he was elected Belfast's first republican lord mayor earlier this month, Mr Maskey pledged to work for equality for all.

He said it was an honour to represent the city.

Unionists reacted angrily to Mr Maskey's election.

He was elected on 6 June after getting 26 votes with the backing of the SDLP and the Alliance Party in the vote at the City Hall.

Unionist councillors walked out of the City Hall and threatened to withhold co-operation with Sinn Fein by refusing to fill the deputy lord mayor's position.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC NI's Mervyn Jess:
"This was a way round a political problem"
Lord Mayor Alex Maskey:
"This is a monumental step by republicanism"
See also:

27 Jun 02 | N Ireland
06 Jun 02 | N Ireland
05 Jun 02 | N Ireland
06 Jun 02 | N Ireland
31 May 02 | N Ireland
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