By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Belfast City Council took an enlightened step forward in the politics of reconciliation on Monday night when it elected Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley as its mayor.
Councillor Hartley’s nomination united the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin and ensured that the democratic wishes of the citizens of Belfast were respected.
Sinn Féin has 14 councillors on the council and was entitled to the mayor’s post on the basis of their significant mandate.
The election of Councillor Hartley as mayor could not have happened without a degree of manoeuvring inside the Ulster Unionist Party, (UUP).
The party leader Sir Reg Empey did not attend the meeting, he was ill and UUP councillor Davy Brown recorded a ‘no’ vote.
What is clear is that Councillor Brown was determined to oppose the DUP’s nominee for mayor, Diane Dodds.
He did so in the face of his party, the DUP and PUP voting for Dodds, a stance which earned him the opprobrium of the DUP and prompted Sammy Wilson to dub him ‘Sinn Féin Brown’.
It was a brave step by Councillor Brown and a gesture which broke with the traditional voting patterns by unionists in the council over many decades.
Sinn Féin councillors recognised the significance of Councillor Brown’s approach and voted en bloc for him as deputy mayor thus establishing for the first time ever in Belfast a republican mayor with a unionist deputy.
Councillor Hartley’s election as mayor is one of the most positive cross-party decisions to emerge from the council since it elected the last Sinn Féin mayor, Alex Maskey several years ago.
Mayor Hartley will bring to the office a wealth of experience and talent which stretches back to the early 1970s to a time when Belfast was the capital city in a war zone, when the people of the city were trapped in geographic and political ghettos, when city hall politics was the preserve of narrow-minded unionist politicians who had scant regard for nationalist rate-payers.
Mayor Hartley’s republican curriculum vitae is impressive.
He has an unbroken record of over 40 years service in Sinn Féin and in the cause of Irish independence.
He was among the first republicans of his generation to grace the cells of Crumlin Road jail in the early 1970s.
He is viewed by republicans as a fresh thinker, a pioneer, an innovator with an eye to encouraging republicans and others to think beyond their immediate needs and constituency.
He opened the first Republican Press Centre on Belfast’s Falls Road in 1973.
He was the first public face of republicanism for many years for journalists, especially those from abroad.
At a time when the IRA’s war was at its height I often heard him argue for Sinn Féin to be built as a political party.
He was the party’s general secretary for over a decade and advocated the many policy changes which were needed to ensure Sinn Féin was built across this island.
During one of the most challenging and heart-rending times for republicans he organised an extremely efficient two-way communication system from republican leaders outside to the prisoners protesting for political status and those on hunger strike.
More than any other senior figure he argued that republicans had to engage with unionists and Protestants in order to have a deeper understanding of their historical and contemporary place in Ireland.
He led the debate for a deeper appreciation of the impact on the Irish psyche - nationalist and unionist - of the colossal loss of life during the First World War.
It is not surprising therefore that he has chosen for his theme as mayor ‘openness and ownership’ of Belfast’s civic institutions.
He intends to connect his office to the disadvantaged and marginalised working class communities, to senior citizens, to women, to the disabled, to ethnic minorities, young people, gays and lesbians and Travellers.
Mayor Hartley’s election will help the people of Belfast overcome that city’s legacy of division.
At a time of great change in the politics on this island it is appropriate that out of this political context a consummate politician like Tom Hartley should emerge to lead Belfast City Council.