An adroit question-dodger in classic SF style


THE VINCENT BROWNE INTERVIEW/Alex Maskey: Alex Maskey remains "on message" throughout all interviews. It is a characteristic of prominent Sinn Fein people - they all say the same thing, using the same words, evading the same questions in the same way. It's rather as you would expect the Moonies to be. Fianna Fáil would like to be like that but it is beyond them. The unionists likewise and likewise.

So what is it with Sinn Fein? Maskey says they are just serious political activists. They meet, discuss issues, decide on a line and that is it. The surprise, as he sees it, is that other political parties don't do likewise.

He is yet another impressive Sinn Féin activist to emerge from the smoke and horror of the "war", clever, articulate, nimble and adroit at avoiding questions. I asked him if he had ever been in the IRA and he said he had not been. I asked him why he had not been, especially as most of the people with whom he would have identified in the 1970s and 1980s would have joined? He says he just didn't and that's it. He might be telling the truth because his denials fit in with his life history.

He was born on January 8th, 1952. His father was a docker. There were seven in the family and he was second eldest. He went to the Christian Brothers school in Donegal Street and then for three years in St Malachy's College after which he went to the technical school run by the Christian Brothers in Hardinge Street.

He joined his father in the docks in 1969 and worked full-time there until he was interned in 1971. He was detained for a year and released for four months and interned again in December 1972 and interned until 1975. Among those who he got to know in jail was Gerry Adams.

On his release in 1975, he went back to the docks and got married in 1976. He and his wife have two children, now aged 25 and 23, and one grand-daughter. He says he joined Sinn Féin while he was in interned in 1971 but wasn't much involved in politics until the hunger strike protest in 1980. He failed to get elected in West Belfast in the Assembly Elections in 1982 but he was elected to the Belfast City Council in 1983 and has been a member of the City Council ever since. Along the way he did a bit of amateur boxing. There had been several attempts on his life.

Maskey was elected Lord Mayor of Belfast last week with the support of the SDLP and the Alliance.

VB: Did you have to give any specific assurances or commitments to the Alliance Party in return for their support?

AM: Well I told them that I certainly would not be removing any items from the Lord Mayor's parlour [in the Lord Mayor's rooms at City Hall] and that instead I would seek to include items of cultural importance to other communities, including the republican community.

VB: What items did you and the Alliance have in mind?

AM: Well, obviously, for instance, there is a Union flag in the mayor's office and that's going to remain, but obviously we'll have to have the Tricolour there as well. Also, I am going to discuss this with people in the museum to see what elements of the Irish nationalist and republican traditions can be represented there. I will also be discussing other ethnic minorities to see how I can put something in the parlour which reflects their culture as well. Belfast is a multi-ethnic city.

VB: What ethnic minorities do you have in mind?

AM In Belfast there are of course the Chinese community, also there is a big Muslim community here. There is a number of smaller African communities here. So what I want to do is to talk to their representative organisations with a view to having their cultures and traditions represented as well.

VB In the event of a member of the British Royal Family coming to Belfast during your reign in term of office, will you receive them as Lord Mayor?

AM That is a particularly difficult issue for me. I certainly do not want to give offence to any communities but I think we will have to wait and see what happens and what the circumstances might be. I personally don't have any antagonism towards any member of the Royal Family and no desire to be disrespectful to the traditions of other communities but it's not my own cup of tea. I am going to look at all these matters and see how I can bridge the gaps that are clearly there.

VB: How do you believe that you can promote reconciliation in what is now a very divided Belfast?

AM: I think we have to seek a new definition of inclusivity. Belfast City Council, for instance, has never reached out to the republican community. What I can do essentially is to do my very best to reach out to people right across the community. I was able to attend the Presbyterian General Assembly opening night and I was glad to do that and hope I will be able to attend other such functions that represent the religion and culture of the unionist community during my term of office.

VB: Can you understand the outrage there is on the part of some elements of the Unionist Community at the sight of somebody from the republican movement being Lord Mayor of Belfast?

AM: Belfast is a very divided city and there are many reasons for that. A whole section of the people here have been excluded from the official life of the city for a long time. But I have been very much involved with the peace process and very committed to it and have been working with other parties, across the board, both in the Assembly and at the city council for several years. By the way, there was a Lord Mayor here a few years ago who openly supported the UVF and there didn't seem to be a problem with him.

VB: What do you want to achieve as Lord Mayor?

AM: I would hope that the city council could give leadership to the city across a range of issues, a collective political leadership, on issues, for example, that the parties in city hall work well on together already. I would like there to be a single voice coming from Belfast, making representation to government departments on various issues, promoting various causes.

And I would hope that when a unionist deputy mayor is appointed we could go jointly to events to show how we are working together for the benefit of all the people of the city. The unionists have yet to nominate someone for the position. They say they will not nominate anyone but I know there is discussion going on so I am hoping sooner rather than later, we'll get a unionist Deputy Mayor.

VB: Are you disappointed that the IRA has not gone further than it has on the decommissioning issue?

AM: The IRA has made great efforts to promote the peace process and has gone much further than many people thought possible. So I am not disappointed, I welcome what the IRA has done and wish that other organisations had done the same.

VB: Do you believe as far as the IRA is concerned the war is over?

AM: As far as I am concerned, I am working in the belief that the conflict might be over, should be over, call it whatever you will, I want to it to be over and I'm very satisfied about that seeing that people have a commitment to making sure this conflict is coming to an end.

VB: What is your personal belief on the issue though, of whether as far as the IRA is concerned, the war is over?

AM: My personal belief is that they are totally committed to making the war over. That's my personal belief.

VB: Do you agree with Gerry Adams's characterisation of Colombia as America's back yard?

AM: That's true, it is more important in America, so it really wouldn't matter what we believe it to be as long as America believes it.

VB: Do you support the cause of FARC in Columbia?

AM: No. I do not.

VB: Why not?

AM: Because I don't support any organisation or any element of the Colombian situation.

VB: Why not? These people have revolutionary principles which Sinn Féin would espouse, so why not come out in support of them?

AM: Well, all that may well be the case but there is a civil war going on there and I am not taking sides, I don't have to. Neither, incidentally, do I support the government side in Colombia.

VB: I assume you are supporting the Republic of Ireland in the World Cup, but do you hope that the English team progresses further?

AM: Yes, I do. I have been very struck by the attitude of the British media towards the Irish team at the World Cup. They have been far more open in their acknowledgement of the achievements of the team than has been usual for the British media in acknowledging other Irish sporting successes.

VB: What do you do for relaxation?

AM: I like to read. I like to have a bit of a yarn actually. I enjoy hurling and having a couple beers, although I am off the drink at present because I need to keep my head clear and lose a bit of weight. I also like photography.