Belfast Telegraph

DUP minister backs Mayor's right to visit anywhere in city

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

A DUP Stormont minister has insisted the Lord Mayor should be free to travel throughout Belfast unhindered after the Sinn Fein first citizen was attacked by loyalists.

Mairtin O Muilleoir was set upon by protesters in Woodvale Park, in the north of the city, as he attended the reopening of the facility in the mainly unionist area.

Northern Ireland's Finance Minister, DUP MLA Simon Hamilton, said Mr O Muilleoir's decision to attend the event was not "the wisest" but was adamant anybody in his position should have the right to carry out their duties anywhere in the city.

He said there was no appetite for areas in Belfast to be regarded as "no-go" zones for political representatives.

"I may not agree with everything he says, I may not agree with everything that he stands for but he is the first citizen of Belfast and as such he should have the right to go to every part of the city," he said.

"My good friend and colleague Gavin Robinson, who was the Lord Mayor last year, I think showed exactly how you can be a mayor for all in the city and was very much welcomed in every part of the city."

Mr O Muilleoir insisted the incident would not deter him from visiting other unionist areas as Lord Mayor in future and Belfast City Council insisted it was "business as usual" in terms of his forthcoming diary engagements.

Yesterday Mr Hamilton condemned the violence and praised Mr O Muilleoir for his efforts "to sketch out a vision for Belfast that a lot of people could subscribe to".

During the radio interview Mr Hamilton added: "We're absolutely not in the business of making parts of the city no-go areas, that's not the sort of thing we see as being conducive to building the bright, vibrant new Belfast that we want to see."

Mr O Muilleoir thanked Mr Hamilton for his comments.

Writing for the Belfast Telegraph he said: "I thank and commend our Finance Minister Simon Hamilton for defending my right as first citizen to travel to every part of our city."

Mr Hamilton's predecessor as Ffinance Minister, party colleague Sammy Wilson, required a police escort from an event he attended as Lord Mayor on the Grosvenor Road in 1986 when trouble flared among nationalist protesters.

"What happened in the 1980s does not have to be replicated in 2013," said Mr Wilson.

"I don't think anybody wants to be in that situation."

However, Mr Wilson said he felt Mr O Muilleoir should have cut short Tuesday's engagement when he realised the depth of anger.

The city's first citizen required hospital treatment after the visit to the recently refurbished Woodvale Park. Yesterday he vowed to continue to visit areas across Belfast regardless of their political demographic.

He added: "In Belfast, the mayor's diary is decided by officials, not by a self-appointed gang of thugs and bullies.

"That's how democracy works and I would be a poor Lord Mayor indeed if I were to fail to defend the high office I hold on behalf of the people of Belfast.

"So, for me, it's business as usual. I look forward to receiving invitations to visit every corner of our wonderful city.

"I know our citizens will understand that I will liaise closely with the PSNI – the safety of the brave men and women of our police service and of council staff is paramount to me.

"However, I will, with the backing of the people of Belfast, discharge my responsibilities as first citizen of the city we love." Nine police officers suffered injuries during the melee and Mr O Muilleoir's official car was damaged.

Mr O Muilleoir said he was inspired by the performance of a female police officer on the day.

He said: "I'll take inspiration from the woman police officer who was battered to the ground at Woodvale. She got up. Immediately. And moved forward again, at great risk, to protect the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

"Belfast got knocked down this week. But we're back up and we will prevail.

The PSNI's commander in North Belfast, Chief Inspector Andy Freeburn, and Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford condemned those who engaged in violence.

"Police are working to identify those involved," said Mr Freeburn.

BACKGROUND

When Mairtin O Muilleoir arrived at Woodvale Park on Tuesday for the civic ceremony he was the target of some heckling but went on to perform the official opening. Police were concerned and extra officers drafted in. When tensions flared, police were forced to form a human shield to get him back to his car, which was also damaged in the attack.

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