Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has paid tribute to party colleague and Northern Assembly speaker Alex Maskey who has announced he will not be contesting the Stormont election next year.
Mr Maskey, who is MLA for West Belfast and will be 70 at the time of the next election in May, confirmed on Thursday that he intends to stand down as speaker and Assembly member at the end of the current mandate.
He is one of the few remaining MLAs who have served in the Assembly since its formation in 1998.
“It has been an honour over the last 23 years to represent the constituencies of West Belfast and South Belfast and to serve as a chief whip, a member of the Policing Board, a committee chair and a member of the Assembly Commission amongst other things,” he said.
“I am especially grateful for the opportunity the Assembly has given me to serve as speaker. I have said many times that the Assembly has to prove itself and it is important to me that the Assembly is seen to work as an institution.”
The veteran republican was something of a trailblazer in terms of Sinn Féin politics. In 1983 he was the first Sinn Féin member elected to Belfast City Council, where he was the subject of an antagonistic reception from unionist members.
He also was interned without trial early in the Troubles. He was attacked by loyalist paramilitaries while his friend and fellow republican Alan Lundy was killed in a loyalist attack on Mr Maskey's home. It is believed that Mr Maskey was the chief target.
Ms O’Neill described Mr Maskey “as a republican activist” who has been a “ferocious champion of the rights of communities within the Assembly, in Belfast City Council and on the ground”.
“A former docker from North Belfast, Alex has been a courageous activist in republican politics over the course of many decades, always leading by example,” she said.
“He was imprisoned without trial, faced down sustained threats and attacks by British state forces and their loyalist surrogates and was almost killed in an attack at his home which left him with permanent injuries.”
Ms O’Neill said that during the negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998 Mr Maskey was “central to the Sinn Féin team”.
"Republican activists of the calibre of Alex Maskey don't retire; Alex will remain a dedicated activist to deliver for the people of Belfast and to achieve a new and united Ireland for all," she added.