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The march of Sinn Fein has lessons for loyalism

The call to my mobile phone said it all; explained the huge difference in the republican and loyalist political projects. It was about a fortnight ago and I had just finished an interview at Belfast City Hall.

The caller was giving me the news that Brian Ervine was resigning as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party; stepping down after a bad election result. It means that, in the space of just a year, the party has had three leaders.

At the City Hall, I had just completed an interview with the new Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, Niall O Donnghaile.

I was in his office, having coffee in the best cups with good-looking biscuits and getting ready to speak to Sinn Fein's leader on the council, Jim McVeigh - the last IRA officer commanding (OC) in the Maze, freed as part of the Good Friday Agreement releases in July 2000.

Republicans and loyalists are in two very different political places, something underscored in the emerging news that came with that phonecall.

The city's new and youngest-ever Lord Mayor was relaxed and in good form; chatting about an engagement the day before in the heart of the Shankill Road, showing me a painting he had been given and talking about his recent media training.

He joked about sitting up straight in his chair - no slumping in his seat. At 26, he is a confident media performer.

He knows his stuff and, before this appointment, had several years' experience working with journalists in his role in the Sinn Fein Press office.

He also knows that being Lord Mayor is a big job, a big responsibility, and he says he is up for it.

The call to my mobile phone interested him. He lives in the Short Strand in east Belfast - the same part of the city as Ervine.

It is a place where the republican and loyalist communities live cheek-by-jowl and need each other to be able to live in peace.

So, it is not in the republican interest for political loyalism to disintegrate. An important part of O Donnghaile's work will be reaching out to the loyalist community.

His visit to the Shankill Road was part of that. Jim McVeigh - once part of the IRA's 'war' - was also there.

We say that now in a kind of 'So what?' way. Yet, not that many years ago, such a visit into the heart of the loyalist community would have been unthinkable.

I wondered about why O Donnghaile and not McVeigh had been chosen for the role of Lord Mayor.

Had it anything to do with the current controversy and focus on republican appointments, the demand to be more sensitive about wider opinion on this question of whether former prisoners should be placed in key political roles?

Both dismissed any such suggestion. Both O Donnghaile's parents are former 'political prisoners'.

When it comes to the painting of his portrait, he plans for it to be done by the mural artist Danny Devenney.

Veteran Sinn Fein councillor Tom Hartley, who served as Lord Mayor in the period 2008-09, has advice for his young party colleague: "He has to be clear what he wants from his year, not just what the party wants; how he brings his sense of self, his interests and where he comes from into his role as Mayor.

"The republican peace and political project is working and you see and hear that when you step into places such as the City Hall."

As we spoke, Jim McVeigh was getting ready to travel to Beirut for a conference, all part of his stepping out of the IRA 'war' and into that world of peace-making and peace-building.

Will he be Lord Mayor at some stage down the road? A party aide joked that he is saving himself for the 'Big One' - Lord Mayor in 2016, 100 years after the Easter Rising.

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