[Sinn Fein]

29th March 2003

Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003

Address by Alex Maskey, speaking in support of Motion 41

Representing all the people of Belfast

Thart ar bhiain ó shin anois, toghadh mé mar Ard Mhéara ar dara príomhchathair na hÉireann, Béal Feirste. Bhí rí-bhród agus mórtas orm toisc gurbh mise an chéad bhall de Shinn Fein a bheith tofa mar Ard Mhéara Bhéal Feirste.

Almost one year ago I was elected as Mayor of Belfast, Ireland's second capital city.I was deeply honoured and proud to be the first member of Sinn Fein to hold the post of Mayor of Belfast.

It was the first time ever that a republican held the post. It was another important and historic development. It was made possible because of developments arising out of the peace process and because of the strength of Sinn Fein's mandate across Belfast. Sinn Fein is the largest political party on Belfast City Council. We have 14 Councillors elected by 1000's of people.

Our mandate itself is a compelling enough democratic argument for Sinn Fein to hold this office but it was the peace process and the contribution that republicans made to it that secured the position. No one should underestimate the political and symbolic significance to the nationalist and republican people of Belfast of Sinn Fein securing this office.

We have a long way to go yet before we can say that the nationalist people of Belfast have secured equality of treatment but having a republican Mayor is a big step in that direction. On taking up the post I was mindful that my year in office would be scrutinised particularly by our unionist opponents but also by people from that background who are beginning to look at Sinn Fein differently.

So from the outset I was determined to show to everyone and particularly to Belfast's unionists that not only had they nothing to fear from a republican Mayor but in fact I would represent them as well as my own constituency. In my mission statement shortly after I was elected I said I wanted to represent all the people of Belfast. To me that is what Irish republicanism stands for; that is what making peace is all about.

Tá Éire aontaithe mar fhís dúinn. Tá Aontachtóirí an oileáin barr-thábhachtach san fhís seo. Bhí sé beartaithe agam a thaispeáint dóibh siúd, trí bhriathar, an saol gurb fhéidir a bheith ann i mBéal Feirste, agus ar ndóigh in Éirinn aontaithe, le hArd Mhéara Shinn Fein bheith tofa i gcathair Béal Feirste.

We have a vision of a united Ireland. That vision includes the unionist people of this island. I wanted to show through what I did and said what living in Belfast, in a united Ireland, could be like if Belfast had a Sinn Fein Mayor.

I have been guided in my term by the following principles: * Equality * Reconciliation * Fair play * Openness * Freshness and * Inclusiveness These principles gave me a broad framework within which to work and with the support of the party leadership we were able to make groundbreaking decisions.

My watchword since June of last year has been `Equality'

* In all its dimensions * Within the institutions of the City * In the treatment of all citizens by the Council

Belfast, although principally divided between unionists and nationalists, is a diverse city. There are many ethnic communities, which enrich Belfast and need recognised and legitimised by the Mayor. I believe I have played my part in making them feel part of the city. I also believe I have pro actively engaged with the unionist and Protestant people in Belfast and beyond.

The decision that I should lay a wreath at Belfast's cenotaph last July within a few weeks of being elected was the first public step in that engagement. The decision was taken after careful consideration and internal discussions. It was not an easy decision because unionists on Belfast City Council have politicised the sacrifice made by those who died at the Somme and the First World War.

Since partition they used the ceremony as a badge of loyalty to their state thereby excluding the many Catholics and nationalists who fought and lost their lives in the war.I laid the wreath as a gesture of peace and national reconciliation to the unionist and Protestant people of this island.I believe many of them saw and accepted the gesture on those terms. I also believe that by laying the wreath it helped nationalist and republican relatives of those who died during the First World War feel part of a world-wide ceremony which they have been excluded from.

Another issue I devoted considerable time and effort to dealing with is the sectarian violence in Belfast. This affects both nationalist and unionist communities and is a blight on the lives of young and old. Many people from both sides worked with me and the many agencies who have been tackling discrimination for many years.I am glad to say that progress has been made in bringing much needed peace to these communities.

Recently the Ard Chomairle appointed me to lead Sinn Fein's outreach programme into the unionist and Protestant community. I am working with a group of republicans who are dedicated to this area of work. It is an engagement across the island with an obvious focus in the six counties.

Over the last ten years in particular a lot of progress has been made in this outreach work. We intend to intensify and build on the good work that has been done.

There is now an established net work of organisations and individuals within the unionist and Protestant community who we are in regular contact with. It is quite clear to me what we are dealing with in this engagement is unravelling centuries of conflict.

That means centuries of hostility between human beings, powerful emotions clashing with each other. Powerful memories of hurt and pain on both sides. This hurt and pain runs deep in the psyche of both unionists and nationalists. We are also dealing with a chasm of distrust and suspicion which has spanned the same period of time.

So you can see the task before us is a considerable one.

A process of change is underway. It affects unionists, nationalists and republicans. It is an unstoppable process. By its nature it is volatile and at times difficult to deal with. It requires leadership and hands on management to avoid misunderstandings.

An essential element in all of this is dialogue and face to face engagement. In this way we begin to see the integrity of the individual and what they stand for and believe in. Such dialogue helps us overcome the stereotypical image we have of each other. It helps us to see the integrity of the individual and the views they have.

You begin to see beyond the rhetoric whether it is your own or theirs.

I am confident that peace in Ireland and a new beginning for all the people are well served through this engagement.

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