Belfast Telegraph

ÔA terrible insultÕ

Maginness says sorry after crowd hits out at Blair

LORD Mayor Alban Maginness has apologised to Prime Minister Tony Blair over the torrent of abuse aimed at him in east Belfast.

Mr BlairÕs planned walkabout at Connswater shopping centre turned into a public relations disaster as he was jostled by an angry crowd and hit with a volley of taunts.

Mr BlairÕs planned walkabout at Connswater shopping centre turned into a public relations disaster as he was jostled by an angry crowd and hit with a volley of taunts.

ÔTraitor, ÔLundyÕ, ÔscumÕ and ÔGerry Adams-loverÕ were just some of the insults hurled at him as he entered the foyer of the shopping complex.

He had just come from nearby Stormont where he had shaken the hands of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams for the first time.

A pair of surgical gloves was thrown at him by a woman in the crowd. One man put a clothes-peg on his nose as the Prime Minister passed.

An elderly man in a wheelchair pointed straight at Mr Blair and told him he was a ÔSinn Fein-loverÕ.

Among the hostile element of the crowd were three young men who had been at the loyalist protest in Fermanagh on Sunday over the Roslea Martyrs march.

They carried posters saying ÔWe demand freedom for our faith, flag and cultureÕ.

Also there was Pauline Gilmore of the Ulster Civil Rights Group. She denied that the opposition to Mr Blair at the shopping centre had been orchestrated.

ÒThese are only people doing their shopping,Ó she said.

Not everyone joined in the chorus of cat-calls aimed at the Prime Minister, and some were delighted to shake hands with the Prime Minister.

One woman, Linda Neill from north Down, told reporters she did not feel the fierce reception was representative of the overall mood of the people.

For the Prime Minister, it was a security as well as a public relations nightmare as an element of the crowd surged towards him. He was quickly flanked by a cordon of RUC men, who formed a ring around him for the rest of the visit.

In the Prime MinisterÕs entourage were Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and Mr Maginness, the cityÕs first SDLP mayor.

He said today: ÒIt was a terrible insult to the Prime Minister.

ÒI personally apologised to him for the misconduct of the people, on behalf of the people of Belfast. I have never witnessed such undiluted hatred by a gang of hooligans.

ÒThe Prime Minister was exceptionally brave.ÓMr Maginness claimed the protests against Mr Blair had been orchestrated.

But this was denied by East Belfast MP Peter Robinson, who met the Prime Minister in a private room at Connswater but refused to go on a walkabout with him.

ÒI spoke to no-one about it. I donÕt think you need to orchestrate this kind of event,Ó said the DUP deputy leader.

ÒWe started getting calls shortly after 10 oÕclock from people telling us that Tony Blair was coming to Connswater because they had been told, having been around the centre, by the police.ÓDuring his private talks with Mr Blair, Mr Robinson had shown him a photograph of the brutalised body of a victim of IRA terrorism.

There were suggestions that after the private meeting the Prime Minister might exit Connswater by a side entrance rather than face the angry crowd again.

But he decided to brave the crowd and walked back to his car, albeit surrounded by around 25 RUC officers linking arms.

To his credit, the Prime Minister never stopped waving as he made the short journey to safety. The only problem was he had no-one to wave to.

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