Belfast Telegraph

Belfast City Council urged to end the secrecy on crucial decisions

By Suzanne Breen

Belfast City Council will be asked to lift the veil of secrecy on decisions taken at behind-closed-doors meetings of senior politicians at City Hall.

The call follows controversy over a private meeting of party group leaders or their representatives in July which allegedly gave the go-ahead to the council seeking an injunction banning more material being added to four bonfires.

Unionists were accused of political cowardice and a lack of transparency for reportedly supporting the move against the Eleventh Night pyres in private but refusing to admit it in public.

Alliance group leader Michael Long is now asking the council's chief executive Suzanne Wylie to report on ways of ensuring "openness and transparency with regard to decisions taken by the party leaders' forum".

His motion on the issue will be discussed at a full council meeting on Monday night.

Deals reached at private meetings of City Hall's most senior political figures have until now been shrouded in secrecy.

But Mr Long says "a new era of accountability" is needed.

The meetings are attended by Mr Long along with the Sinn Fein, DUP, UUP, SDLP and PUP group leaders or their deputies.

They take place once or twice month and can last up to three hours. Discussions focus on contentious or important matters that are set to go before a committee or the full council. Meetings will also be called if there is an urgent matter requiring action by council officers.

Mr Long insisted there should be "complete openness and transparency". He said: "It is understandable that discussions between group party leaders are confidential. But when they reach a decision then the public have a right to know. There should be complete openness and transparency about these decisions.

"That is the only way myself and the other party group leaders can be held accountable for the choices we make. As the situation stands, the public are kept in the dark about what can be crucial decisions, which is bad for democracy."

The Belfast Telegraph reported in July that Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance, UUP, SDLP and PUP all supported the council's bonfire injunction at a behind-closed-doors meeting with council officers. Despite demands that the DUP, UUP and PUP clarify their positions, the unionist parties declined to confirm or deny the reports.

The council has launched an investigation into the entire bonfire issue. Mr Long said the "lack of transparency" regarding the group leaders' meetings seriously disadvantages a growing number of councillors who don't belong to the six biggest parties.

"The main party group leaders can brief their party colleagues about the decisions taken," he said. "But there are seven councillors who aren't present, nor have they anybody representing them at the meetings, which puts them at a serious disadvantage in City Hall."

The seven are Declan Boyle, Pat Convery and Kate Mullan who quit the SDLP in June and now sit as independents; Ruth Patterson and Jolene Bunting who have left the DUP and TUV respectively; Green councillor George Milne; and People Before Profit's Matt Collins.

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