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The making of a mayor

(Brian Campbell, Irish News)

Brian Campbell spoke to Irish News journalist Barry McCaffrey, author of a riveting new biography of Belfast's first republican mayor, Alex Maskey: Man and Mayor

The man behind the Mayor is revealed to great effect in Irish News journalist Barry McCaffrey's in-depth biography of the first republican lord mayor of Belfast.

From having several attempts made on his life to laying a wreath at Belfast City Hall in remembrance of the Somme war dead, the Sinn Féin councillor's story is riveting stuff.

Barry knew Alex Maskey from attending Belfast City Council meetings since the mid-90s and his book details the council's transformation from a "gentlemen's club for bigots" to one which has had three nationalist mayors in the past six years.

While there were Sinn Féin councillors in Belfast in the early 1900s, Maskey's place in history was guaranteed after he became the first party member to take his place in the city hall during the Troubles.

"He was the first one there during the Troubles and he was the man the loyalists hated most," McCaffrey said.

"Adams and McGuinness might have been the big hate figures, but Maskey was the one that they were meeting on a daily basis. And that's why they tried to kill him and that's why at the start there was a concerted campaign to break his will.

"The other thing was that the IRA were killing people in the city and Maskey was the man going on TV, maybe not to justify it, but to defend republicans' actions."

A by-election in 1983 saw Maskey take his place in the council earlier than planned, meaning that he faced the fierce unionist opposition alone until his party colleagues could run for office in the 1985 elections.

"If you spoke to him, he would just deny that he was anything special," McCaffrey said.

"But if you look at his political progression, he was against Sinn Féin taking part in any elections in '81 and didn't take part in the Bobby Sands election campaign because he was ideologically opposed to constitutional politics. But within a year he was Gerry Adams's running mate in the assembly elections and a couple of years later he was in city hall."

One of the attempts on Maskey's life, in 1993, resulted in the death of close friend Alan Lundy, a memory that still haunts him.

"They were building a security porch outside the house and were coming out to finish off. Maskey went upstairs to the toilet and they pulled up in a car and raked the front of the house. Alan Lundy was killed.

"Lundy's death was the biggest thing for him," according to the author.

Having survived up to nine assassination attempts, as well as the council chamber of horrors, Maskey persisted and became lord mayor in 2002.

"He would say, 'Oh well, I'm no different to everybody else', but the fact is that the state was trying to kill him, loyalists were trying to kill him and when he became mayor everyone thought it would be a big republican party for a year. But he probably caused as much anger in republicanism as he did in unionism."

When the then mayor laid the laurel wreath at the cenotaph in Belfast City Hall's Garden of Remembrance in July 2002, the gesture caused bitter divisions in republicanism.

"Only a small number of people knew he was going to do it, and because it was just two weeks after he was elected mayor they didn't have that opportunity to consult and debate what should have been done," McCaffrey said.

"So he went and laid the wreath and there were problems within the rank and file.

"Unionists didn't expect him to do it, nobody expected him to do it. It was cleared with the leadership, but he was the one who pushed it.

"They thought he would go in there, take down the union jack, put up the tricolour and have a party for a year. Instead he was sitting down with British generals and he was only hours away from meeting Prince Andrew."

The book recounts how Maskey almost met the royal at Ravenhill rugby ground earlier this year, before the plan fell through at the last minute.

Meeting Prince Andrew might have been a step too far for some republicans, but Maskey has also met leading loyalists – and could have come face to face with Johnny Adair, who had allegedly tried to kill him.

"When he sat down with John White, Frank McCoubrey and Davy Mahood the natural progression of that could have been that he would sit down with Adair, but it never came to that, because of the loyalist feud kicking off," the author said.

"And don't forget that they were still pipe-bombing his home when he was mayor, and sending bullets through the post."

One of the most bizarre incidents in Alex Maskey's story occurred when he was involved in a speaking tour on England in the mid-eighties.

When the republican group arrived to talk to Hackney council in London, everyone except the Labour Party councillors and one Liberal Democrat – Pierre Royan – left the room.

"Maskey thought Royan was going to throw eggs or bring out a loudhailer, because all the other Tories and Liberals had walked out," McCaffrey said. In fact Royan fired a starting pistol before being wrestled to the ground by Labour councillors.

McCaffrey said the book was initially supposed to cover Maskey's year in office alone, before it developed into the councillor's life story.

"It's interesting that Maskey's whole term as mayor was to convince unionists that in a united Ireland, (Sinn Féin) are a safe pair of hands – 'we'll not do to you what you did to us' – but whether he convinced unionists remains to be seen."

April 1, 2004
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This article appeared first in the October 14, 2003 edition of the Irish News.


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



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