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Sinn Fein Wins Belfast Mayor's Post

N. Ireland: The victory is a first for the IRA-linked party. A compromise- minded bloc on the City Council plays a key role in the outcome.

June 06, 2002|From Associated Press

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The IRA-linked Sinn Fein party won the post of Belfast mayor for the first time Wednesday, another important step away from its terrorist past and toward a mainstream political future.

Furious Protestant politicians walked out of Belfast's City Council after the election of Sinn Fein candidate Alex Maskey, a former Irish Republican Army prisoner who nearly died in an assassination attempt 15 years ago. He became the city's second Roman Catholic mayor in recent years after nearly two centuries of Protestant dominance.

"This is a disgraceful decision, rewarding an organization which has been involved in the destruction of Belfast over the past 30 years," said a losing Protestant candidate, Chris McGimpsey.

Maskey, 50, prevailed thanks to the council's most compromise-minded party, Alliance, whose three members backed Sinn Fein, despite expressing reservations about continued IRA violence. Maskey received 26 votes from the 51-member council, while the Protestant camp--certain beforehand that it would lose--split its 25 votes between two candidates.

Alliance is the only cross-community party on a council otherwise divided into two diametrically opposed camps: 25 British Protestants and 23 Irish Catholics.

In previous years, Alliance refused to back Maskey for the annually elected and officially neutral post. But before the vote, Councilman David Alderdice said all three Alliance councilmen were "prepared to hold our noses and swallow for the sake of the peace process."

Rhetorical battles between the two council blocs have long centered on the growing involvement of Sinn Fein, which boycotted Northern Ireland elections until the early 1980s.

Maskey, a former amateur boxer, was interned as an IRA suspect twice in the 1970s and emerged from prison as a favorite target for Protestant extremists. He was shot in the stomach at his home in 1987. The IRA has fought British rule of Northern Ireland.

After becoming Sinn Fein's first elected councilman in 1983, Maskey endured several years of attempted isolation. Protestant politicians either bolted from the council's red leather benches as he spoke or drowned out his words with heckles and horns.

But civility in Belfast City Hall has gradually risen along with Sinn Fein's strength in working-class Catholic neighborhoods. Sinn Fein today holds 14 posts on the council, more than any other party.

The council, founded after the provincial capital's birth as an industrial city in the early 19th century, got its first Catholic mayor in 1997 with the election of Alban Maginness, representing the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party. The SDLP's nine members also backed Maskey in Wednesday's vote.

Alderdice said Maskey should be supported because the IRA in the last year had unveiled two of its arms dumps to disarmament officials--a pivotal part of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

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