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Former SDLP Belfast mayor and internee defends MBE award

Former SDLP mayor of Belfast and republican internee Pat McCarthy has defended his decision to accept an MBE. Picture by Colm Lenaghan
John Monaghan

A FORMER SDLP mayor of Belfast and republican internee has said he "cannot understand" why anyone would feel uncomfortable about his acceptance of an MBE.

Pat McCarthy was appointed a Member of the British Empire in the new year's honours list for services to local government and community cohesion in the city.

Born in the Markets area of the city, he was interned without trial in 1971 and has admitted being a member of the official republican movement.

However, he said he always opposed violence and was elected an SDLP councillor in 2001, before serving as Belfast's fourth nationalist mayor in 2006/07. He was not returned to the expanded city council in 2014.

Mr McCarthy told The Irish News on Thursday night: "I gave it some thought. I asked the opinion of a few people, including the SDLP secretary general and she said that if I wanted to take it to go on ahead.

"I was delighted when I heard that I had been nominated by church and community groups across south Belfast who I have worked with for 14 years on the council.

"Are we suggesting burning everything British bar the coal? Are we saying to the unionist people that their culture has no place? I thought we had come a long way from that."

Mr McCarthy questioned why any former constituents would feel uncomfortable at his acceptance of a royal honour.

"I have signed many a British passport for people who would be perceived to be nationalist/Catholic.

"That is what is wrong with this country, you are always being labelled. I have had dozens of texts and messages and all of them have been positive."

He said he still believes that "Ireland should be a unitary state, but unlike others I don't believe that you have to bomb and shoot people".

"I was chairman of a republican club. I have never tried to hide my past and I have nothing to be ashamed of. The experience (of internment) never embittered me."

He added: "Nelson Mandela was interned, and he was a man we held up as an icon. What have I done wrong in accepting this award?"

A former vice-chairman of the SDLP also described Mr McCarthy's acceptance of the award as "no big deal" on Thursday.

Tom Kelly, who received an OBE a decade ago, said since the day he saw Martin McGuinness meet the Queen "nothing surprises me".

"I regard it as a completely personal decision," he said.

"It is very difficult for people to say they are unhappy with it when they see all the things being done by the Sinn Féin leadership."

Mr Kelly, a former Policing Board member who had left the SDLP prior to receiving his award, said no party figures criticised him for his decision.

It is understood there was never an official SDLP policy regarding members taking royal honours, but some have faced criticism for accepting awards in the past.

Lurgan councillor Hugh Casey left the SDLP after accepting an MBE in 1994, claiming he had been ostracised by some members.

In 1988 Mary McSorley, a former chair of Magherafelt District Council, also claimed she had been "forced out" of the party after accepting an OBE.

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