Sinn Fein was today preparing to bid to have its first Lord Mayor elected in Belfast.
The party will put forward Assembly member Alex Maskey as its nominee at the election in Belfast City Hall tonight against Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers.
However, Mr Maskey’s hopes will hinge on the votes of three councillors from the cross-community Alliance Party who hold the balance of power in City Hall.
Unionist parties account for 25 of the 51 councillors, while the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein have a combined total of 23.
The Alliance group led by David Alderdice is expected to reveal its voting intentions at a Belfast news conference.
However, in the final hours running up to tonight’s vote, they were coming under intense pressure from rival nationalist and unionist camps to endorse their candidates.
Former Lord Mayor David Alderdice was refusing to show his party’s hand before today’s news conference but told PA News it would be voting in the ‘‘best interests of the city of Belfast’’.
‘‘We have carried out a comprehensive consultation process in the run up to this vote and have taken on board all arguments,’’ he said.
‘‘It has been a difficult decision and we have treated the matter very seriously. Either way, we can expect a lot of flak for the way we vote but we have thought about what is best for the city.’’
If West Belfast MLA and South Belfast councillor Alex Maskey is chosen, it will be the city’s second nationalist and Catholic Lord Mayor after the SDLP’s Alban Maginness tenure in 1997.
Mr Maskey’s election will be especially poignant for Sinn Fein as he was one of the party’s first councillors to be elected to the council in 1983.
The Sinn Fein Assembly chief whip also survived an assassination attempt by the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters at his home on January 1994.
Ulster Unionist honorary secretary Jim Rodgers, who served as Deputy Lord Mayor in 1997, is a critic of the Good Friday Agreement but will draw support from his colleagues in the UUP, the Democratic Unionists, the loyalist Progressive Unionists and an independent loyalist councillor.
Ahead of today’s meeting he insisted as Lord Mayor he would represent the entire city, ‘‘embracing all races and creeds as well as promoting rights for the disabled, middle aged and elderly’’.
But with republicans currently facing mounting pressure in the peace process for a gesture on IRA arms, Mr Rodgers argued the time was not right for a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor.
‘‘There needs to be something coming from Sinn Fein and the IRA on arms. Until such times as Sinn Fein and their military wing start decommissioning, they cannot expect unionists to talk to them or negotiate with them at council level or support them as first citizen.’’
Mr Maskey said his party would support a unionist Deputy Lord Mayor ‘‘in the spirit of inclusivity and partnership’’.
He claimed his election would send a ‘‘powerful signal’’ from Belfast about a new political era.
‘‘Given that all the other parties have held this office, it would be the first time all the people in the city would have been represented.
‘‘I think there is also a high expectation among the public that Sinn Fein will get its rightful place as the largest party in Belfast - not just in the number of councillors but also the popular vote.
‘‘It will be a good day for the city and will signal a new day as far as Sinn Fein is concerned.’’