Belfast City Hall witnessed a huge, historic and symbolic break with the past when Mr Alex Maskey was last night elected the first Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of the city, amid a unionist walkout.
The three councillors from the Alliance party, which holds the balance of power, held firm against several unionist pleas to abandon its support for Sinn Féin. With the SDLP and Sinn Féin, it supported the 50-year-old candidate.
Mr Maskey was returned with 26 votes against 15 for the Ulster Unionist candidate, Mr Chris McGimpsey, and 10 for the DUP nominee, Mr Robin Newton.
Mr Maskey, who is planning to adopt the title of mayor rather than lord mayor, said he would work for all of the people of Belfast and promised some measures in the coming days to illustrate his good faith. He appealed to unionists: "Judge me on what \ see me doing and saying." Mr Maskey will be without a Deputy Lord Mayor for some time, however, as unionists, who are entitled to the post, refused to propose any one for the position. The issue was put back to next month.
As soon as Mr Maskey was returned, all 25 unionists from the UUP, DUP, Progressive Unionist Party and the sole Independent unionist, Mr Frank McCoubrey, walked out of the chamber.
There was some catcalling, with former DUP lord mayor Mr Eric Smyth pointing at Mr Maskey as he received his chain of office and declaring: "On behalf of the Shankill Road you are not wanted on the Shankill." Before the vote was taken, Mr Nelson McCausland of the DUP said the election would be "a night of shame for the city, a night of sadness for those who have suffered at the hands of the IRA over the last 30 years".
DUP Assembly member Mr Sammy Wilson said the Alliance had engaged in kamikaze politics by supporting Mr Maskey. He hoped it would now "disappear from the political scene forever".
However, the reaction was restrained. About 10 minutes after Mr Maskey's election many unionists, including Mr Wilson, returned to the chamber, where the rest of business was conducted civilly with the new mayor in the chair.
Noting unionists were back in the chamber, SDLP councillor and MLA Mr Alex Attwood said: "The Rubicon of electing a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor has been passed. This is not a one-day wonder, it's a one-minute wonder." Outside the chamber, UUP Minister and councillor Sir Reg Empey said, however, that unionists would not be co-operating with Mr Maskey.
Alliance admitted it had misgivings but believed the two acts of IRA decommissioning and Sinn Féin's restrained attitude to Queen Elizabeth's recent jubilee visit to Northern Ireland justified its three members voting for Sinn Féin.
Dr David Alderdice of Alliance hoped Mr Maskey would live up to his promise to be inclusive. "With my whole heart I despise the actions of the IRA over the last 30 years, but equally I believe in democracy, and that is what tonight was about."
Mr Maskey was the first Sinn Féin councillor at Belfast City Hall, elected in 1983 in the wake of support generated by the republican hunger strikes. Loyalists made a number of attempts on his life. He was wounded in the stomach in 1987, and six years later a man working on his house was shot dead.