Doing it the right way.
Alex Maskey used his chain to unite his community. That’s what all civic leaders should do, they should bring their communities together. So maybe we should be surprised that’s what he did. But then again, for Alex bring his community together was a matter of life or death.
To get to the point that he could become Lord Mayor of Belfast Alex Maskey had to survive nearly 20 tough years on the city council. Again, that shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s surviving the nine attempts on his life that mark him out as very different kind of Lord Mayor.
The most divided community in the country
Alex Maskey was the first member of Sinn Fein to be elected as Lord Mayor of Belfast. That’s significant, but what’s truly important is what he did with the role. As he puts it: “I think it was criminal that, as a council, we had nobody working to bring the two communities together.”
The work that need to be done wasn’t just a matter of life and death for him, it was about the lives of everyone in his home city. In 2002 It was high time a civic leader championed unity and tried to end sectarian violence on both sides of Belfast.
There is much to learn from Alex, in fact Barry McCaffrey’s book about him ‘Man and Mayor’ should be on the reading list for all civic leaders. I’d urge you to read it as there is no way I have the scope to cover his entire year in this article.
Focus on one thing
Laying a wreath at the cenotaph doesn’t sound like a big thing, mayors do that all the time. But for Alex Maskey taking part in the annual commemorations of the Battle of the Somme was a big issue. Just like everyone else in Sinn Fein he saw it as a celebration of the British Army and obviously wished to take no part in it.
But the Lord Mayor is expected to attend. It was clear that this was to be the first big test of Alex the Mayor.
An important battle
Irish Catholics and Unionist Protestants fought together at the Somme. They both joined the British army in their droves and the barbaric trenches of WW1 did not discriminate. Some 10,000 men from Ireland, north and south, died in the battle.
Even though most catholic households in Belfast had lost someone during WW1 the community no longer marked commemorations like the one for the Somme. For many acts of remembrance had become too intertwined with the British army.
Recognising the losses on both sides
What Alex had to do was strike a fine balance. If he did too much he risked upsetting his grassroots support. If he did to little he’d be criticised for not acting as a mayor for the whole city. He pointed out: “I was determined that I wasn’t going to discriminate against the protestant community in the same way that nationalists had been mistreated for so long.”
Of course, hard-line unionist and hard-line nationalist where unlikely to be pleased whatever he did. But he pushed forward because he knew it could be “a major step for the republicans and nationalists of this island.” Those are the actions of a true leader.
A tough day
At 8.55 am on 1st July Alex Maskey, in his chains of office, carried a laurel wreath towards the cenotaph. He was joined by a handful of Sinn Fein councillors and watched by many more members of the press. He took the final steps alone.
No doubt, he felt that same stirring of feelings we all feel at such acts of remembrance. Laying a wreath is an emotionally charged thing. For Alex, it must have been more significant than most. He had lost many friends during The Troubles and that pain must also have been in his heart as well as his mind.
Difficult but worthwhile
His leadership did not go unnoticed: the Secretary of State, John Reid, described it as a sign of hope for the future. As well as praise, he received many letters and phone calls from nationalists who had lost family members in the Battle of the Somme. They thanked him because they finally had a chance to acknowledge their grief publicly.
Part of a wider issue
Alex’s actions went to the heart of a much deeper issue within his community. Many people died on both sides during The Troubles but there was no way that loss could be collectively marked. By navigating the difficult issue of the Somme, Alex began a discussion about how all of Belfast’s dead could be remembered.
Jim Gibney a Sinn Fein National organiser summed it up like this: “Belfast City Council, because of its position, needs to give leadership on how we commemorate the dead. If we cannot respect the dead, how do we respect the living?”
A role for the mayor
More than anything else it was an act that only the Lord Mayor could have done. It wouldn’t have had the same significance if it had been done by the chief exec or the leader of the council. The tremendous value of Alex’s actions came from his role. The power of civic leaders is often down played but power is not always political. There are some things that only a civic leader can do. There are some powers that can only be wielded by the leader of the community.
Alex used the mayor’s power to pull his community in a direction it needed to go in. Click To Tweet
Alex said, “I have worked and will work with the political parties in a collective way to provide civic leadership for everyone in this city of ours.” We should not underestimate the importance that civic leadership plays in healing our communities.
Mayors for Peace
There is no doubt Alex played a vital role in the peace process. By understanding what the mayor should do, by using it to its full potential he had a huge and lasting impact on his community.
No one is going to claim that Northern Ireland is without its problems but it has come a long way. That’s in no small part down to Alex Maskey, he is an example of what you can achieve with a chain. He is an example to civic leaders everywhere.