Alex Maskey and the UDA assassin

Alex Maskey was the first ever republican mayor of Belfast City and only the second Catholic to hold that post in the entire history of our fair city.


His wife Liz McKee was the first woman interned in the 1970s. Alex was interned during the same period. When internment ended and Liz and Alex were married, they were subjected to the routine and daily harassment that activists endured right up until recently. Even when Alex was an elected official he was constantly stopped, delayed, detained, searched and verbally, and sometimes physically, abused. Sometimes the British army was involved. Most times it was the old RUC.When the Stevens Inquiry into collusion concluded its findings, it found that Alex Maskey was targeted by the notorious Brian Nelson. Nelson was a British agent who rose to be the UDA's most senior intelligence figure. He was provided with information on republican and nationalist targets by his handlers who also reorganised his filing system. Nelson was the UDA leader who provided the information which led to the murder of Pat Finucane. He was also centrally involved in the importation of a huge consignment of weapons in the late-1980s from the old South African apartheid regime into Ireland.

The shipment was organised by Ulster Resistance (founded by the DUP), the UDA and UVF, and British Intelligence.Alex Maskey was targeted on several occasions by Nelson. He was shot and seriously wounded. On another occasion his friend Alan Lundy was shot dead in Alex and Liz's living room. I arrived minutes after the attack and tripped over Alan's body lying on the floor while Liz tried to comfort her two young sons. On another occasion, and after another attack on their home, Alex was arrested by the RUC.Why am I telling you all of this? On Friday 29 December the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle agreed on a motion to be put to a special ard fheis. The motion is about Sinn Féin supporting the PSNI. The meeting was chaired by Alex Maskey.He wasn't the only one in attendance who has had this type of life experience with the state police here in the North. Like them, Alex would have many reasons for opposing any Sinn Féin involvement with policing structures. But he supported the motion.The Ard Chomhairle meeting was a good meeting. I think it's unfortunate that discussions like that cannot be audio or visually recorded, even for archival purposes.

There are 55 members of the Ard Chomhairle of whom 46 have voting rights. There were an additional 20 or more activists in attendance, including TDs, MLAs and MEPs. We sat in a big circle. The majority of people spoke. Alex chaired the meeting in a quiet, understated and effective way. He spoke only once to give his own view. What he said struck me.“They couldn't force us to support them when they were beating, killing and harassing us. If we decided to support them now it will be on our terms. That is, we will hold them to account as a policing service which upholds people's rights, as opposed to a political police force which denies people's rights.”That discussion and opinions like Alex's, as well others equally valid that are against the Ard Chomhairle motion, will be aired time and time again in the next three weeks. If the DUP responds positively to the Ard Chomhairle motion, the Ard Fheis will be held after an intensive, nationwide engagement by the Sinn Féin leadership with all levels of the party.There will also be a widespread engagement with republican communities and individuals. There needs to be room for everyone to express their views whether for or against this initiative. There is a particular right and need for victims of collusion, of state terrorism, republican veterans and the families of our patriot dead to give their opinions.I have a sense that many people outside of republicanism appreciate how big an issue and how mighty a challenge this next phase is going to be for Irish republicans and nationalists. Particularly those from front-line communities in the North. There can be no certainty about what way the Ard Fheis vote will go, even though predictably, and wrongly, most of the media will assume the Sinn Féin leadership has the Ard Fheis in its pocket.

I think we are going to have a very rocky few weeks. But we have had rocky times before and republicans have learned the hard way how to strategise and plan. I have every confidence that we will stay united and cohesive. Most of us have been through too much to throw it away at this stage in our struggle. The prize is too big.As Village goes to press, Alex Maskey leaves for the USA to brief Irish-American supporters on this latest republican initiative.Of course this initiative is risky. Even if and when the Ard Fheis is held, and even if it supports the Ard Chomhairle position, there are no guarantees how unionism will behave. And one has always to calculate that elements within the British system will continue to try and thwart progress. I also work on the assumption that unless the Irish government changes its tact, its involvement will continue to be minimalist and limited.So, this new year will, to repeat a truism, be a battle a day. But it's well worth it. Irish society is in transition. The upcoming debate is all about what kind of Ireland we want. These are exciting times. Dangerous times. But good times also. 2007 here we come!