Last week a republican became Lord Mayor of Belfast for the first time in the city’s history.
To vote for Alex Maskey was one of the most difficult, soul-searching decisions I and my two Alliance colleagues ever took. We had to weigh up countless factors and we heard many opinions.
But we knew that whatever we decided, some wouldn’t agree with us. That is the situation we faced last year, and the year before, and I am grateful to those who have backed our decision, and also to those who may disagree, but who trust our integrity.
Last year, Alliance did not back Sinn Fein. There were a number of reasons for that. But mainly, we felt that Sinn Fein had utterly failed to meet its main obligation under the Good Friday Agreement – it had failed to convince the IRA to begin the process of putting its weapons beyond use.
Since then, we have had two acts of decommissioning, something many people doubted would ever happen. It is something that benefited the political process enormously, and was recognised worldwide as one of the most significant steps ever taken by the Republican Movement.
Sinn Fein’s conduct during the recent royal visit was also a step in the right direction. There were no protests, insults or attempts to embarrass the Queen. Instead, Sinn Fein displayed a dignified detachment.
However, there are serious issues which we have had to consider in the past year, and we are not running away from those.
Alliance is very concerned about the apparent links between the IRA and FARC. There are many unanswered questions lying in the South American jungle, and there may well be disturbing answers in the weeks and months to come. There are implications both for the situation in Colombia and in Northern Ireland. For Alliance, a Colombian life is every bit as important as an Irish or a British one.
At home, the IRA have been implicated in murders, have engaged in paramilitary assaults, and continue to exile many of our citizens from home. All of these are the greatest human rights abuses in our society.
I have also witnessed loyalist violence in recent days, and was disgusted by the UVF’s attack on the police in Donegall Pass. We are also concerned about republican involvement in street unrest in areas such as the Short Strand, which I visited recently. Everywhere you look, it is innocent people and the police who are bearing the brunt of sectarian violence. That must end. Now.
As a party of law and order, we have difficulties over Sinn Fein’s lack of support for and failure to engage with the reformed Police Service. As first citizen, I believe the Lord Mayor must lead by example in setting high standards for the rule of law.
It is time for Sinn Fein to face the fact that they cannot continue playing games with policing. Changes are expected to the Policing Act within months, yet it is still the case that the IRA blocks off the Short Strand with vehicles when the police attempt to stop the violence there. I want to see greater co-operation between republicans and the police.
It is time for Sinn Fein to accept that officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland are the defenders of the nationalist community – and the unionist community, as well as all the others who reject such sectarian labels. I want to see Sinn Fein take up its seats on the Policing Board, and I believe they one day will. Even the backward DUP now realise that they have to be involved to change things. The politics of self-exclusion are the politics of yesterday.
It is long past the time for the IRA to disband. The logical progression of decommissioning is, ultimately, disbandment. Equally, I would call on the UVF, UDA, INLA and all other terrorist groups to disband.
For better or worse, Sinn Fein are now generally regarded as part of the democratic process. For two elections running, they have gained the most votes in Belfast City Council.
They have two seats on the Executive, and are in charge of the two largest spending Departments.
Last May, they were the largest nationalist party in terms of Westminster votes. And next May, they could end up with more Assembly seats than the SDLP.
They cannot be ignored. But the best way to end continued IRA activity is to consolidate the primacy of the democratic process.
As long as Sinn Fein continue to hold office and to exercise real power under the Good Friday Agreement, it would totally inconsistent to block them from holding an essentially ceremonial office, albeit a highly symbolic one.
There has also been much progress in Belfast City Council, once a bearpit, now – while not a shining example of co-operation – much improved since the bad old days. Alliance can also claim much credit here.
So after much consideration and consultation, both within and outside the party, the Belfast Alliance councillors decided to back Sinn Fein’s mayoral candidate for the second time.
I believe that by doing this, we will be wedding Sinn Fein even closer to the democratic process. Once again, Alliance has taken a risk for peace. We are doing what we believe is the right thing to do and we are acting for the greater good, as we did when some of our Assembly members redesignated last November to save the Agreement.
Yes, we expected the usual hypocritical criticism from unionists. But the simple fact is that unionists are sitting beside republicans in the Executive and they are serving the people of Belfast alongside Sinn Fein.
Let’s not forget that unionists elected Hugh Smyth as Lord Mayor before there was even a UVF ceasefire. More recently, they elected both Hugh Smyth and Frank McCoubrey, who sat and watched as UFF thugs fired machine guns at a show of strength, as Deputy Mayors.
Alliance is proud to have pioneered power sharing in councils across Northern Ireland. But the onus is now on Alex Maskey to take up the responsibilities of First Citizen – he can no longer say he’s a second class citizen – live up to his word, be inclusive and represent all.
I want to look to a shared future, where unionists and nationalists, loyalists, republicans and others can work together for the good of the whole community, both inside Belfast City Council and throughout Northern Ireland. Alex has the opportunity to take that vision of inclusivity forward.
This is a historic decision, and I believe that the history books will show that Alliance made the correct decision again. It’s over to you Alex. Don’t let Belfast down.