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The problem with republicans

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

Barry McCaffrey finds out why unionist politicians adopt a different approach in dealing with the political representatives of loyalist paramilitaries, from the one they follow with Sinn Féin.

Unionists on Belfast City Council have confirmed they will not be nominating a deputy to sit alongside the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey.

An SDLP motion at Monday night's council meeting to defer the divisive issue until June, effectively ended months of speculation.

Unionists say their decision not to share the top office with Belfast's first republican lord mayor is based on their reluctance to sit alongside a politician whose party is linked to a paramilitary group. But critics have accused unionists of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Nationalist opponents insist that both the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party have been willing to sit in city hall with 'men of violence' in the past – so long as they were loyalist. Unionists have previously elected politicians with links to the UVF and UDA to the positions of lord mayor and deputy mayor.

In the late 1980s unionist councillors elected the PUP's Hugh Smyth as deputy mayor, four years before the UVF's ceasefire.

In June 1994, Mr Smyth was elected first citizen – four months before the UVF ceasefire. In December 2000 deputy mayor Frank McCoubrey, who despite being a member of the UDA-linked UDP was elected to the post by mainstream unionist councillors, was a character witness for a man in court on attempted murder charges relating to the UDA/UVF feud.

Unionist politicians regularly condemn loyalist violence, but contacts between the DUP, the UUP and loyalists have occurred regularly. In 1986 DUP leader Ian Paisley defended his decision to attend the wake of murdered UVF leader John Bingham. A number of other high-ranking unionist councillors attended Mr Bingham's funeral.

Those present when John Bingham's coffin – draped in a UVF flag, beret and gloves – was carried from the church, included the then north Belfast MP Cecil Walker, former DUP councillor George Seawright, former UUP mayor John Carson and councillors Joe Coggle, Frank Millar and Hugh Smyth.

A few years later a DUP councillor was jailed for his part in a UVF extortion racket. In 1993 Billy Baxter was convicted on charges of demanding money on behalf of the UVF. The North Down councillor was jailed for three and a half years for soliciting money from a Dublin businessman for the UVF.

In September 1996 leading DUP figure William McCrea sparked controversy when he joined LVF leader Billy Wright on a public platform in Portadown. Last year DUP councillor John Smyth was elected to Antrim Borough Council. Mr Smyth had previously served a five-year sentence in the 1970s for UVF activities.

Meanwhile, senior UUP figures Fred Cobain and David Burnside have both admitted holding separate private talks with the UDA leadership last summer. And during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, Ulster Unionists made a public demonstration of "unionist unity" by walking into the talks shoulder to shoulder with loyalist representatives. But while unionists in Belfast refuse to sit with a Sinn Féin lord mayor, outside the city, leading unionists appear to have no difficulty doing just that.

The Rev McCrea holds the chairmanship of Magherafelt District Council with Sinn Féin's John Kelly as his deputy. Strabane DUP councillor Tommy Kerrigan last year took the position of deputy mayor alongside Sinn Féin mayor Ivan Barr. Mr Kerrigan went so far as to shake hands and pose for photographs with Mr Barr and said he could work with him. But within 24 hours Mr Kerrigan was forced to issue a statement withdrawing his previous statement after receiving a telephone call from party leader Ian Paisley.

Belfast's first nationalist lord mayor, Alban Maginness, accuses unionist politicians of living in the 'twilight zone'.

"The covert association which unionist politicians have had with loyalist paramilitaries has given these people a legitimacy and status which they do not deserve," the SDLP representative said.

Warning that unionist refusal to take the deputy mayor's position was ultimately failing their constituents, Mr Maginness said: "There is serious work to be done and they are just not doing it.

"What the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland want to see is their politicians sharing power. What better symbol to promote around the world than a unionist and nationalist acting as mayor and deputy mayor?

"In my opinion nationalism has shown it is prepared to compromise and share power.

"When I was the first nationalist mayor of Belfast I received huge positive feedback from ordinary Protestants but absolutely nothing from the unionist politicians.

"Alex Maskey compromised with the British Legion event this week but there wasn't one unionist councillor there to see it.

"You are left asking yourself if unionist politicians actually want reconciliation.

"Their history with loyalist paramilitaries is certainly inconsistent with their current refusal to take the position of deputy mayor because Alex Maskey is in the mayor's seat."

But former Ulster Unionist lord mayor Jim Rogers defended his party's position.

"The big problem for unionists is that the lord Mayor represents a political party closely aligned to PIRA which has never said that it regret its deeds of the past.

"If that happened it would be a small step."

Defending his party's decision to elect councillors whose parties are closely aligned to the UVF and UDA, Mr Rogers said: "The UUP supported Frank McCoubrey and Hugh Smyth because they have no criminal record and have condemned all paramilitary violence.

"Sinn Féin and the SDLP are trying to score cheap political points here but it won't work.

"I don't hate anyone. I chat to Alex Maskey any time I see him as an individual. It is what he stands for which causes great problems for unionists.

"Our record speaks for itself. We are not linked to any paramilitary organisation and have consistently condemned all paramilitary violence. We have nothing to be ashamed off."

Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley was disappointed at the refusal to take the deputy's seat.

He said: "They say they will not sit with a Sinn Féin mayor, against a backdrop of a long association with loyalist paramilitaries.

"They say they won't work with Sinn Féin but it is a fallacy because every day they are working with us on committees but the public and the press don't see this.

"They are feeding this negative politics to their own electorate but at the same time they are working and engaging with republicans.

"They are portraying this image of staunch unionism but in reality the only people they are fooling are their own constituents."

But DUP councillor Nelson McCausland said: "The comments from Tom Hartley are simply ludicrous in view if the fact that his party is inextricably linked to the IRA, one of the most vicious murder machines in western Europe."

Accusing Alban Maginness of "desperation politics", Mr McCausland said: "Surely this can only be seen as a sign of desperation from Alban Maginness and he would be better employed in working for the benefit of his constituents than wasting time on this kind of cheap political tittle tattle."

November 10, 2002

This article appeared first in the November 8, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News