June 28, 2002
The bitter and twisted response of the main unionist spokesmen and of the media soothsayers to the courageous bridgebuilding actions of Lord Mayor Maskey are no surprise to peace process watchers.
For the last 30 years, unionists have spurned the open hand of nationalists. In fact, it was the stubborn refusal of unionist zealots to as much as grant Catholics a home which led to the bloody violence which bedevilled us for a quarter of a century.
Likewise, the BBC which never once criticised the exclusive nature of the unionist-only shindigs which passed for civic events here have suddenly come over all outraged because the Queen's second cousin twice removed could only be catered for in the third row tables at Saturday night's installation celebration.
Where were the BBC newshounds in the seventies, eighties and nineties when the fact that Catholics were banned from the Mayoral seat wasn't considered a suitable story for the airwaves?
But forget the begrudgers. The Irish proverb sums it up: "Bíodh cead cainte ag fear caillte na himeartha" ("Let the loser have his say.") And certainly in his bold move to lay a wreath to the war dead - those ‘lions led by donkeys' - Mayor Maskey has made the No men among unionism the losers.
Anti peace process unionists in City Hall wanted to see Alex Maskey ensconced in a green, white and gold bunker during his tenure as First Citizen. The last thing they wanted was a Mayor who would embrace the whole city, celebrate the changing Belfast and represent all the people as equals.
Mayor Maskey's decision to do just that has thrown the unionist hardliners - whose claim to fame in City Hall was that they had to be brought to court before they would as much as place swings in a Catholic playground in the Whiterock - into a rage.
For the sad fact is that unionists don't know how to make peace with the living...or the dead.
What chance that a unionist mayor would lay a wreath in Milltown to the fallen legions of the IRA who too fought for their country? A slim chance indeed because unionists are more interested in turning the Great War commemorations into celebrations of British military might and not-an-inch-ism. Their contribution to marking the Somme is to hang parami
tary flags outside Catholic chapels on the Ormeau Road before berating the beleaguered community of the Short Strand for daring to even exist - valour indeed!
Mayor Maskey is faced with two difficult obstacles: the exaggerated expectations of nationalists (the Mayor, for example, has no say over what flag flies from the Dome of City Hall) and the exaggerated fears in the unionist community. So far, he has played it straight down the middle, showing respect to the nationalist ethos which has been out in the cold for far too long while assuring the unionist minority of Belfast that their traditions will be respected.
While forging forward with an agenda of change - the election of the first republican Mayor is only a milestone in a journey, of course, not an end in itself - the First Citizen is also helping nationalists make peace with their own war heritage.
It's true to say that no family in Belfast is untouched by the losses of the two World Wars just as no family has been untouched by the struggle for independence and freedom. Many families can boast relatives who fought in the British Army and the IRA - some enjoyed membership of both organisations! Perhaps now the dead can be remembered with the dignity and peace they deserve.
Those over the age of 50 reading this column will remember the days when Belfast Corporation was synonymous with bigotry - so much so that managers could refuse employment to a nationalist and brazenly write on the dole forms under reason for rejection ‘Roman Catholic'.
As Lord Mayor Maskey rises on Saturday night to deliver his installation address he might well reflect on the fact that it's a long, long way from there to here.
This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on June 27, 2002.