Who Runs N. Ireland? In 3 Cities, Nationalists Do

A new Irish mayor in Belfast reflects a growing Catholic vote. But such mayors seek a partnership between communities.

The robes which have graced the shoulders of every Lord Mayor of Belfast since 1889 have been hanging in a closet for the past six months.

When he was elected to run Northern Ireland's largest city in July, Alban Maginness decided to mark his term by dispensing with many of the traditional trappings of office.

So along with the robes, also placed in retirement was the long-standing toast to the British monarch at the annual mayoral dinner.

Such symbolic gestures are not totally surprising, as Mr. Maginness is the first mayor of Belfast who wants to unite British-ruled Northern Ireland with Ireland.

Eamon Phoneix, a historian at Queens University in Belfast, says "the changes may be subtle, but in terms of political life right across Northern Ireland, they are very important."

The election of Maginness means that the mayors in all three cities in Northern Ireland - Belfast, Londonderry (or Derry, as Irish nationalists call it), and Armagh - are for the first time all members of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Nationalist Catholics make up about 40 percent of the population of the region, but a concentration in urban areas is giving them a majority within city council boundaries. The Catholic population is also outpacing Protestant growth, and is expected to reach a majority in the next 30 years.

However, Maginness warns that "we cannot replace unionist majoritarianism with its nationalist equivalent." He sees the political future being built on "partnership amongst the divided traditions."

A similar spirit has driven his SDLP colleague, Patrick Branigan, a member of Armagh City council for 18 years. Now mayor of the city, he recalls that "up to 1986, this council was a place of confrontation where lots of steam was let off."

To overcome the constant bickering, Mr. Branigan persuaded his SDLP colleagues to meet with pro-British unionist councillors. Together they decided to take sectarian politics out of local government in Armagh.

Today, issues relating to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are excluded from the agenda of the council. Branigan says "with the political divisions gone, we now get consensus on the vast majority of matters."

Not that the long-established sectarianism in Northern Ireland has fully disappeared. Only last weekend, riots erupted in Londonderry following a unionist parade to mark Protestant resistance against a Catholic army in 1689.

As masked youths from nationalist areas threw Molotov cocktails and hijacked vehicles, British Army troops were deployed in the city center for the first time since the IRA renewed its cease-fire last July.

Maginness believes that "communal violence" only ensures that "the harrowing feeling of inevitable confrontation covers Northern Ireland."

The SDLP mayor of Londonderry, Martin Bradley, says, "city traders have lost heavily in what should have been busy pre-Christmas shopping."

Still, Maginness says as Belfast mayor, along with his colleagues in Londonderry and Armagh, he can help bring "a more inclusive political atmosphere."

This is the bottom-up type of solution to the problems in Northern Ireland that the three mayors hope can augment the progress being sought at the all-party peace talks, which recessed Tuesday in Belfast and are due to resume sometime in January.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.