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Thursday 22 February 2018

Sinn Fein Belfast mayor: Attending Armistice Day commemoration hardest decision of my career

Mairtin O Muilleoir made history
Mairtin O Muilleoir made history

David Young, Press Association

The first Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast to take part in an Armistice Day commemoration has described the decision to attend as the hardest of his political career.

Mairtin O Muilleoir made history by participating in a two minute silence for the war dead at the cenotaph at City Hall.

Republican politicians have previously boycotted November's remembrance events in Northern Ireland due to the association with the British military.

However, past Sinn Fein mayors have laid non-poppy wreaths at the Belfast cenotaph to mark the July 1 anniversary of the Battle of Somme. Those gestures were performed prior to official Somme commemorations getting under way.

Mr O Muilleoir, who today played a leading part in the Armistice Day event in the grounds of City Hall, admitted he had done much soul searching prior to attending.

"I think it's the most difficult decision I have made in 30 years in politics and community activism," he said.

"It is a challenge and I think that it had to be done. I think the peace and building the peace and building a better Belfast demands that we have to move ourselves into places where we are uncomfortable, which challenge us and which move us into new positions of peacemaking."

The mayor made headlines in August when he was attacked by loyalist protesters on a visit to open a park in a unionist area of north Belfast.

The incident took place close to the Ardoyne/Woodvale sectarian interface where community tensions have been high since the summer as a consequence of a bitter parading dispute.

Mr O Muilleoir said his presence at the cenotaph was him seeing through a pledge he made on taking office to be a mayor "for all the people of Belfast".

"Part of that means reaching out to unionism and today really was about peacemaking towards unionism," he said, noting that many Irish nationalists died in the First World War.

"This is a huge event in the unionist calendar in particular and I wanted to show respect for unionist people and the Protestant people of Belfast by being at the cenotaph on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month."

The mayor acknowledged that some republicans might have an issue with his attendance.

"It's very difficult for Belfast's republicans, many Belfast people, because of the experiences we have had with the British army over the last three decades, and more, to accept that a mayor who comes from a Sinn Fein tradition would be at the cenotaph," he said.

"For those people, especially those hurt people, what I would say is this is the challenge of peacemaking, that it's about remembering the dead, remembering the dead of that terrible slaughter which was the First World War."

Mr O Muilleoir stood alongside Democratic Unionist deputy mayor Christopher Stalford during the two minutes of silence.

No wreaths were laid at the event in the city centre, with the majority of poppy tributes having been placed at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

Mr Stalford welcomed Mr O Muilleoir's decision to attend.

"I had always intended to be going to Armistice Day and I am pleased that the lord mayor made the decision that he wanted to go too," he said.

"I think that was a positive and forward step and I hope it is a first step towards Sinn Fein embracing remembrance and all of the events that take place around that."

Mr O Muilleoir would not be drawn on whether a Sinn Fein representative would ever attend formal wreath laying Remembrance Sunday events in the future. The party has claimed those commemorations need to be more "inclusive", expressing concern at elements such as the playing of God Save the Queen.

"I don't do hypotheticals," the mayor said in response to the possibility of Sinn Fein participating in Remembrance Sunday.

"I think that today is a good day for Belfast, it is a day where our people can unite to remember the dead of the Great War from all traditions and renew our commitment to ending wars.

"What the future will bring I don't know. We know that remembrance traditionally divides the people of Belfast and those divisions remain but I am urging people to stand on the common ground and part of the common ground is remembering with respect all those who died in the First World War."

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