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'Bearpit of bigotry' bore witness to many of city's defining moments

Twenty years ago, a hunt for a screwdriver in Belfast City Hall may have caused alarm. Shouting matches, scuffles and even police intervention were commonplace in a council where sectarian confrontation was the name of the game.

Back then, some councillors even came to meetings wearing body armour under their clothes as high tensions on the streets often spilled into the council chamber.

But last night they were in the mood for reminiscing, not remonstrating, as they united in sadness for the end of an era. The hunt for the screwdriver was harmless - the sentimental politicians just wanted to take their name plaques home as a keepsake.

The nostalgia won't last, however, as tomorrow night the new council of 60 members meets, representing parties as diverse as the Greens, DUP, People Before Profit, Alliance, PUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, TUV and UUP.

It is a far cry from the Ulster Unionist dominated council in 1973 which emerged from the ashes of the Belfast Corporation.

Before his death last year, former PUP councillor Hugh Smyth told of how, as a working man, it was hard to attend the council meetings. They were all held in the middle of the afternoon and the job carried no salary, just expenses - which were dependent on attending meetings.

Another working class man, former shipyard worker Frank Millar, was elected to the council in 1972. He would become infamous for punching DUP man Sammy Wilson during a bearpit meeting in 1989, and was fined £50.

Sinn Fein first entered the council chamber in 1983 with the election of Alex Maskey. These were turbulent times, shortly after the IRA hunger strikes at the Maze Prison, and he was not well received by unionists. They would frequently vote to silence him, and if he did attempt to speak, send the RUC after him. City Hall veterans recall Mr Maskey dodging in and out between chairs to avoid RUC officers, while the rest of the council sang the Laurel and Hardy theme tune.

Mairtin O Muilleoir, who would later become Lord Mayor himself, was elected in 1987.

In his book Dome of Delight - City Hall's nickname - he recalled how the Press reported the monthly meetings as a "bearpit of bigotry".

In more recent times, Sammy Wilson did not take kindly to "the Shinners'" introduction of the Irish language to the council chamber, and he blasted it as "a leprechaun language".

Another controversial character from City Hall's inglorious past was George Seawright, who suggested an incinerator might be put to better use burning Catholics, before going on to whack the then Secretary of State Tom King on the back of the head with a flag pole. He was later shot dead by terrorists.

While things may have quietened down after the 1998 Agreement, some elements of sourness did remain.

In 2011, Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile was snubbed by his deputy, DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, as he offered his congratulations. The following year saw the next Lord Mayor, Gavin Robinson, forced to suspend a meeting when a loyalist mob, enraged at a vote to restrict the number of days the Union flag is flown, stormed the building.

However, many councillors last night contradicted the assessment by veteran UUP councillor Jim Rodgers that this was "the worst council he had ever served on", observing that the city and the council have come a long way.

Belfast Telegraph