Belfast set to get first mayor from Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online

Belfast is poised to have its first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor after the cross-community Alliance Party decided yesterday to back the republican candidate in an attempt to "consolidate the peace process".

Belfast is poised to have its first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor after the cross-community Alliance Party decided yesterday to back the republican candidate in an attempt to "consolidate the peace process".

The party, whose three councillors hold the balance of power on Belfast city council, said its decision to support Alex Maskey had been reached after a lot of "soul searching".

Mr Maskey, who has been the face of Sinn Fein on Belfast city council for almost 20 years, welcomed the party's decision last night and promised to work with all sides to reduce sectarian tensions if he is voted in at Wednesday's council meeting.

"If elected, I will work with everyone in City Hall and use my office to facilitate all sides," he said.

"I will work with them in a sustained manner to address difficulties in interface areas and will not walk away at crucial moments or dip in and out like others have done when problems arise."

The leader of the Alliance group on the city council, David Alderdice, said despite concerns over republicans' refusal to back Northern Ireland's police service and the arrests of three Irishmen in Colombia, Sinn Fein was regarded "for better or for worse ... as part of the democratic process".

To support its decision, the Alliance cited the facts that Sinn Fein was already the largest party in City Hall, was the largest nationalist party in terms of Westminster votes and was also expected to overtake the SDLP in the next Assembly election.

The party said in a statement: "We believe that by doing this, we will be consolidating peace by wedding Sinn Fein even closer to the democratic process. Once again, Alliance is taking a risk for peace. We are doing what we believe is the right thing to do."

The move prompted immediate anger from Unionists. Assembly member Norman Boyd, chief whip of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party, said people throughout the province would be "dismayed and angry" at the Alliance support for Sinn Fein.

Mr Boyd said that for more than 30 years the Provisional IRA, whom Prime Minister Tony Blair had said were inextricably linked to Sinn Fein, had bombed, maimed and murdered many innocent citizens of Belfast. They had caused millions of pounds of damage to businesses and caused the loss of thousands of jobs, he said.

"The IRA continue to build huge criminal empires through extortion and racketeering on a daily basis," he said. "The Alliance Party are gullible and naive to believe otherwise."

The Alliance decision was "disgraceful" and proved the party endorsed the policies of republicans and were no friends of unionists, Mr Boyd said.

With five days to go before the city council's vote, the cross-community party's three councillors – Mr Alderdice, Naomi Long and Tom Ekin – have been agonising over their decision.

Unionist parties account for 25 of the 51 councillors, while the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein have a combined total of 23.

The SDLP welcomed the Alliance Party decision and said it too would be backing Mr Maskey.

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