Plans to hold a homecoming celebration for Ulster troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan took a step closer to becoming a reality last night.
Councillors in Belfast came face to face during a crunch meeting to decide whether the returning servicemen and women should be honoured with a civic reception in the city to tie in with a parade being organised by the Army.
The issue has divided council members, with unionists in favour and nationalists opposed to the proposals.
Members of Belfast City Council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee had narrowly voted in favour of holding a civic reception for the troops at a meeting held last month.
But the proposal needed to be ratified at a full meeting of the council held last night.
Councillors voted on a Sinn Fein amendment to the original minute asking that the council oppose holding a reception for military personnel. However, this failed to gain the necessary support and was overturned by a vote of 26 votes to 20.
Sinn Fein councillor Paul Maskey said he was disappointed at the outcome. “Quite a lot of people within Belfast will be disappointed by this vote as well,” he said.
“Many people in Belfast are opposed to these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is of great disappointment that we are now supporting it. This debate itself has created division within the city and set it back maybe a number of years.”
However, the DUP’s Robin Newton said he was pleased that the vote had gone in favour of holding a reception. “I think this is a debt that we owe not only to the soldiers who have served, but to their families who also serve as they wait for their loved ones to return,” he said.
The unionist vote was helped by support from Alliance, who voted for the reception.
Naomi Long said her party was opposed to the ‘war on terror’ but was sympathetic to the troops sent to fight it. “We should be able to support local people who have served,” she said.
The civic reception will be held after a parade to St Anne's Cathedral on Sunday November 2.