Swansong for SDLP veteran Alban Maginness
Tributes have been paid to veteran SDLP MLA Alban Maginness who is retiring from politics.
The 65-year-old barrister announced yesterday he will not be contesting the next election for the Assembly, where he has represented North Belfast since its inception in 1998.
Mr Maginness was the first nationalist and Catholic Lord Mayor of Belfast the year before the political watershed of the Good Friday Agreement in 1997.
He said yesterday: "Even with the signing of the Agreement and the years I have served since in the Assembly, I would say my year in office as the Lord Mayor was the height of my time. I still think about it that way.
"It was a pivotal moment. It created a new climate in Belfast and a new template for how the office of Lord Mayor should be exercised, which I am happy to say seems to have been followed ever since."
Mr Maginness insisted he had not been pushed out by the party's new leader Colum Eastwood, and said his decision was "entirely my own".
There had been speculation the former party chairman had clashed with the new leadership over his trenchant opposition to same-sex marriage.
Mr Maginness, who graduated from Queen's University with a Master's in Human Rights Law in 2007, abstained in the last Assembly vote on the issue when a simple majority in favour was blocked by the DUP. He stressed yesterday the same-sex marriage controversy "did not come into the reckoning".
"That was absolutely not part of it. There is no single major issue on which I would disagree with Colum, so it was not about that," said Mr Maginness, who was party chairman from 1985 to 1991.
"He gave me full support for whatever I wanted to do, and I decided it was an opportune time for the party to change its MLA in North Belfast."
Asked why he had decided to stand down, he replied: "I am 65. Another five years in the Assembly, well, you do the mathematics.
"I am the grandfather of five grandchildren, with another two on the way.
"The party is renewing itself at many different levels and I think that's a very positive change.
"We're entering into a new mandate and I think a new person would give new leadership to the party in North Belfast."
Leading the tributes yesterday, Mr Eastwood referred to Mr Maginness' year as Lord Mayor of Belfast as a "political breakthrough".
"Alban Maginness has been a pillar of honesty and decency in local politics as an elected representative for over 30 years," the party leader said.
"His work as a young barrister, helping to right egregious wrongs that had been committed against people in his community, was the mark of the man throughout his career.
"His early work to defend civil rights and liberties is something which has stood this society in good stead through some of our darkest times.
"Alban's place in our history has been secured by his unflinching political opposition to violence and attempts to reconcile all communities in North Belfast."