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Alliance racism and ageism row councillors back SDLP candidate

By Suzanne Breen

Two councillors who resigned from the Alliance Party last month alleging ageism and racism are supporting an SDLP candidate in the election.

Geraldine Rice and Vasundhara Kamble have endorsed Pat Catney, who will be battling for a seat in Lagan Valley with Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn.

The two former Alliance representatives described Mr Catney as a man of "intense decency and integrity" who would represent people well if he was elected.

In a statement last night, Mr Catney said he was delighted to be backed by both women, whom he held "in the highest regard".

The SDLP candidate's nomination papers were signed by former Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close, although Mr Close stressed that this was not an endorsement of his candidacy.

Mrs Rice, who was Alliance's longest-serving councillor, resigned from the party two weeks ago.

She claimed that she had been treated "with total disrespect" after 28 years of loyal service.

The 70-year-old believed she would be her party's nominee for the position of Mayor of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, but another councillor was chosen instead.

She said she had previously been told that she was not an "acceptable face" for her party as she was viewed as "old-school Alliance".

Her Alliance colleague, Vasundhara Kamble - who originally comes from India - also resigned, alleging that there was an "undercurrent of racism" in the party, which she said always treated her "as an outsider".

Mrs Kamble claimed that Alliance was "a tight clique of elitist people who are only friendly to professional people with a certain educational and financial background, with the right social connections".

Party leader Naomi Long denied the allegations, insisting that Alliance was committed to equality and diversity.

Both female councillors are to continue as independent members.

Mrs Rice said: "We are not joining the SDLP, but we are endorsing Pat Catney because he is a man of intense decency and integrity.

"Now, more than ever, we need people in Stormont who will stand up for these values. From serving with Pat on Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, we know he will do this.

"We believe he is the candidate best placed to restore public confidence in the Assembly and put integrity back at the heart of local politics. We wholeheartedly endorse him."

Mrs Kamble said: "Pat Catney has proven himself time and again as a hard-working local councillor. He is for the politics of inclusion, not exclusion. Pat is well respected by people from all traditions and backgrounds."

Mr Catney said he was "deeply grateful for this statement of confidence and support" from the two ex-Alliance councillors.

The Alliance Party is confident of holding its Lagan Valley seat. Mr Catney polled 2,900 votes last May, 800 behind Mr Lunn. He was excluded on the sixth count.

Lagan Valley will see three DUP MLAs - Paul Givan, Edwin Poots and Brendan Hale - competing with the UUP's two MLAs, Jenny Palmer and Robbie Butler, for the four unionist seats.

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