Councillors to get bus tour of 'other side'
Swathes of Belfast are unknown territory to its politicians, so they're going exploring... if they can ever agree an itinerary
The 60 councillors tasked with taking Belfast into the future in the new super council are being offered a bus tour to explore parts of the city unfamiliar to them – but the plan has stalled as they can't agree an itinerary.
While these representatives may know the areas they were elected in, many are less than familiar with the wider city.
Sinn Fein's Mairtin O'Muilleoir, from west Belfast, had never been in east Belfast before he served as Lord Mayor last year.
He said while he had driven through it, he had never been in it "diagonally", on the ground meeting people.
This was rectified earlier this year when former Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson of the DUP took Mr O'Muilleoir on a bike ride along the Greenway.
Likewise, Mr Robinson said there were places, such as Casement Park in the west, that he had not visited before his year as first citizen.
However, some of the newer councillors are not as familiar with the metropolis.
Two unionists said they had never set foot on the Falls Road.
TUV councillor Jolene Bunting said while she had driven round most of the city, there were areas she had never walked.
The DUP's Guy Spence said he has not set foot on the Falls Road and was cautious about doing so after receiving a threat from Óglaigh na hÉireann in 2012.
Sinn Fein leader on the council Jim McVeigh joked he had been to most areas – including the Newtownards and Shankill Roads – but not "the posh areas".
Now, as well as receiving training on how to chair meetings and deal with the media, councillors will also be offered a bus tour of Belfast to see their own city.
There has been a mixed reaction to the initiative, with the DUP and PUP welcoming it, but the TUV slammed the bus tour as a "waste of ratepayers' money".
Mr Robinson praised the move, echoing comments he made to the council on Wednesday evening that it was vitally important for councillors to look beyond their own patch.
"It's specifically to highlight projects that the council has been involved in and opportunities for regeneration and so on that could come in the future," he said.
"If it's just a tourist trail, I am not sure it'd be of much benefit.
"Parochialism is no good from a council point of view."
The PUP's Billy Hutchinson also welcomed the idea as "useful", but cautioned that the tour must be accurate.
"I can understand from a journalistic point of view that people think this is a waste of time, but I actually think it will be challenging for councillors in a number of ways," he said.
"It's important to see how the city has evolved and where we are going. You have got seven quarters in Belfast, so it's about what all they all represent."
Ms Bunting said the idea was a waste of time and money: "I don't think it's necessary to have a bus tour.
"If you are representing a city in my eyes you should know that city, so if someone says we have put money into a site then you should know where you are going," she said.
"It's a waste of money. I can understand what the thinking is behind it but not how they can justify the money being spent on it."
She added that while there were parts of Belfast she had never walked around, she was familiar with the whole city from driving around it.
Ulster Unionist councillor David Browne said the council was "taking the hand out of itself".
"We're leaving ourselves open for a kicking from people like yourselves," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
He said he had been in every area of Belfast in his previous job.
The new super council was elected last month. It comprises 60 councillors and will sit in shadow form until March 2015. They are currently holding monthly meetings to prepare to take over the reins and will have additional powers, such planning controls.
The previous Belfast City Council will continue to govern the city until next March.
A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said the bus tour was intended to help new councillors understand the city better, but the details of the tour had not yet been agreed.
"It was an idea that a minibus, or any suitable vehicle – 'bus tour' was simply a term used for the idea – might take members, especially newly elected ones, around some of the council's most significant projects to fully understand the ways in which we are delivering on the ground to improve the quality of life for people who visit and live, work and study in Belfast. Nothing, however, has been agreed."
- The new Belfast super council was elected last month and held its first meeting on Wednesday night, where Sinn Fein's Deirdre Hargey was selected as the authority's first presiding councillor.
- DUP councillor Ruth Patterson was selected as the vice presiding officer. The super council will run in shadow format until March 2015.
Faces of the super council...
Jolene Bunting: The 21-year-old is the first-ever councillor for Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice in Belfast. Within days of her election she was already making headlines over controversial remarks on her personal Facebook page saying: “I'm so sick of the poor Catholic b******* they make me sick.” Ms Bunting has since apologised for those remarks. In council, she said she promises to be a “thorn in the flesh of Sinn Féin and the DUP”.
Deirdre Hargey: The Sinn Fein woman from the Markets area is noted for having refused to speak to police over the motorious murder of Robert McCartney in Magennis’ Bar in 2005. She was in the bar that night, but said she saw nothing. Ms Hargey has served on the council since 2010, was re-elected last month, and earlier this week she was selected to serve as the first presiding councillor, or chairperson, of the Belfast super council.
Billy Hutchinson: The PUP leader made his return to council earlier this year following the death of his colleague Hugh Smyth. He previously served on the council from 1997 to 2005, when he lost his seat. In 1974 he pleaded guilty to the murder of two Catholic men on Northumberland Street and served 16 years in prison. He has been notable as a feisty member of the council this year, often sparring with Sinn Fein group leader Jim McVeigh.
Jim McVeigh: Sinn Fein’s leader on Belfast City Council is a relative newcomer, having been co-opted in 2010 and first elected last month. Known as Flash, he was jailed twice on bomb charges and was the IRA leader in the Maze during the prisoner releases that followed the Good Friday Agreement. He was head of the SF council group during its bid to see the Union flag removed from City Hall, although the council eventually opted for a statutory days compromise.
Ruth Patterson: DUP veteran and former UDR member, she has been involved in several controversies, including the snubbing of former Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile when she took up her seat as deputy mayor in the chamber, facing court over Facebook remarks, and donning a Linfield scarf during a council meeting. She attracted further controversy at the election count at Belfast City Hall last month by loudly booing Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.Gerry Carroll: He upset the Sinn Fein election applecart last month when he was returned under a People Before Profit banner to represent the Black Mountain district electoral area. He has promised to be “a thorn in the side of the council”, and already caused consternation during the first meeting of the super council on Wednesday by querying whether group leaders in the chamber should receive extra payments in this time of austerity.
Emmet McDonough-Brown: Emmet is a fresh face for the Alliance Party, of which he has been a member for over two years. Elected for the first time last month, he is a law graduate. He was just eight when his father, republican activist Jimmy Brown, was murdered as he sat unarmed in his car during a bloody feud in 1992. Emmet never really knew his father, who had been living in Dublin before the killing. He said he joined the Alliance Party because of its diversity.