Sinn Fein's Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir on historic cenotaph gesture: The most difficult decision of my life, but the right one
Sinn Fein Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir has described the decision to become the first from his party to take part in Armistice Day as "the most difficult of his career".
Mr O Muilleoir made history yesterday as he walked shoulder to shoulder with DUP deputy Lord Mayor Christopher Stalford and British Legion officials to the cenotaph at Belfast City Hall to pay his respects to those who died during the First World War.
His decision to attend the ceremony was exclusively revealed by the Belfast Telegraph before the event.
He stood for the Last Post and a two-minute silence at 11am to mark the anniversary of when guns fell silent in 1918 after four years of war in which Protestants and Catholics from across pre-Partition Ireland fought together in Belgium and northern France.
Speaking after the ceremony, he told the Belfast Telegraph that in his 30 years of political and community activism, taking part in Armistice Day was "the most difficult decision" he ever made.
"I was gratified by the support of my Sinn Fein colleagues in council, but also across the country," he said.
"I think that while it was a tough decision, it was the right decision. I think we have to really double down on the pledge to build bridges with unionists. I have tried to do that throughout the days I have been in office.
"In unionism Remembrance is a huge issue, and it was important to find some way, with generosity and imagination, to take part in the Armistice Day ceremony.
"It's not without its challenges and difficulties for many republican and nationalist people in Belfast, but it is my hope and prayer it will help build the peace." The Lord Mayor and Royal British Legion had been having conversations about a way in which the Sinn Fein representative could attend a Remembrance event.
Mr O Muilleoir did not take part in Remembrance Sunday at Belfast City Hall as he was in North America with Visit Belfast.
He arrived home at 6am yesterday and it is understood that the decision to take part was deliberated over until late Sunday evening.
Deputy Lord Mayor Stalford had been on standby since last week to officiate at the event, and also represented the council at Remembrance Sunday.
"Remembrance transcends politics," he said. "I am pleased the Lord Mayor took the decision to participate in this event and I hope that is the first step in full participation in all events around Remembrance. There is no need for people's political hang-ups to get in the way of coming together to remember those who served our country and secured our freedom and way of life."
Mr Stalford added that he hoped people within the unionist community would accept the gesture.
"I hope people will see it as a step towards normalisation on the part of republicans, that they have finally decided they are going to embrace Remembrance in a positive way," he said.
Alliance group leader on Belfast City Council Maire Hendron and SDLP group leader Tim Attwood also attended, and both said they admired the Lord Mayor for taking part.