Why I’m going to meet the queen

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Last night, I attended the most solemn occasion in the calendar of any republican mayor: a Mass in Clonard in honour of our patriot dead.

This service was initiated by Alex Maskey when he took on the mantle of First Citizen in 2002, in recognition of our belief that all the dead of our three-decade conflict should be afforded equal respect.

There are those who would deny the republican dead — and the living — that respect. But their day has passed.

Indeed, I have made mutual respect for all traditions and the celebration of our diversity as equal citizens a cornerstone of my tenure as First Citizen.

That’s because I am resolved not to repeat the mistakes of those who made City Hall a cold house for one section of our people. When first elected to City Hall, I was tossed out of my first meeting by the RUC, had to wear a flak jacket to meetings and was barred from the Lord Mayor’s parlour.

I am in politics to ensure that not only republicans, but no section of our people, are treated in that manner today.

Indeed, my wish is that today’s Belfast, in which Sinn Féin is the largest party, be a diverse, inclusive and welcoming place for all, regardless of colour, class or creed.

As a republican, that brings real challenges to me when it comes to showing our unionist neighbours that their traditions, heritage and beliefs are as important to me as my own republican credo.

I have risen to that challenge in many ways, not least by taking part in a non-militaristic and inclusive ceremony on Armistice Day at City Hall to remember all the dead of the Great War and to recommit ourselves to the pledge that this would be the war to end all wars.

And because we can say now in our own home place that “the war is over”, we can go further to heal the wounds of the past and reconcile our peoples as we move towards a shared future. For me, that future, will inexorably mean the reunification of Ireland by wholly peaceful and democratic means. But to achieve that end means we must endeavour to convince unionists that in any new Ireland, their traditions will be embraced and respected.

It’s for that reason that I have accepted an invitation from the President, Michael D Higgins, extended jointly to the Lord Mayor of Dublin Oisín Quinn and me, to join him on his historic state visit to Britain this week.

 

Respect

As part of that visit, I will become the first mayor from Sinn Féin to meet a member of the British royal family.

By doing so, I will be living up to my promise to be a Lord Mayor for all the people of Belfast by showing respect for our unionist neighbours. Ultimately, when you take on the mantle of First Citizen, you must try to leave your own party political sentiments to one side and take steps which, while personally difficult, are in the wider interest of the city.

I realise that my attending the Windsor Castle reception may cause distress to some people in the republican constituency. If so, that is something which I regret, as my intention is to heal not to hurt. To those who would say don’t take this step because of our past, I would say, I am taking this initiative for our future.

In that regard, I take great heart from the leadership of my Catholic chaplain Fr Des Wilson – while recording my debt of gratitude to all my chaplains from the Christian and minority faiths – who has spoken to the need to build the peace through building community.

At Clonard last night, I had a chance again to reflect on the heavy price our people have paid as a result of our past divisions. We must never go back there, and by building bridges between Britain and Ireland and fostering reconciliation at home, we will ensure that our steps are ever forward.

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