Belfast Telegraph

'No regrets' from SDLP's Declan Boyle as trio suspended for not backing motion on harassment by anti-abortionists at clinics

By Suzanne Breen

An SDLP councillor suspended for not supporting a motion calling for an end to the harassment of women by anti-abortionist activists outside sexual health clinics has said he has "no regrets" about how he voted.

Declan Boyle is one of three SDLP members of Belfast City Council against whom internal disciplinary action has been initiated.

"I'm disappointed that the SDLP has suspended me for voting pro-life," he told the Belfast Telegraph last night.

"I thought the position of the party was pro-life and that how I voted was in line with party policy.

"I don't support the harassment or intimidation of anybody but I do believe in standing up for the rights of the unborn.

"I am proud to be pro-life and I have absolutely no regrets about how I voted."

The leader of the SDLP council group, Pat Convery - who is a former Lord Mayor of Belfast - and the deputy leader of the group, Kate Mullan, were also suspended.

The move almost halves the SDLP's already depleted City Hall team, leaving just four councillors on its benches.

It is not known for how long the trio's suspension will last.

An SDLP party spokesman said that would be decided by the leadership.

Sources close to the councillors complained that it "wasn't a transparent process".

They said the trio were disappointed that they hadn't been called to a meeting to argue their case, but instead had been informed of their suspension by the party's chief whip, South Down MLA Colin McGrath (left) in a phone call.

The disciplinary action was welcomed by Alliance's council group leader Michael Long.

But Peter Lynas, director of the Evangelical Alliance, said he was "deeply disappointed" that the councillors had been "suspended for voting pro-life with their consciences".

The SDLP took action after the councillors abstained from Monday night's vote condemning the harassment of those entering sexual health clinics.

The motion was proposed by Green councillor Georgina Milne, who said she had been contacted by clinics concerned that people entering their premises were being forced to "run a gauntlet of intimidation and harassment".

The resolution was passed with 50 councillors voting in favour, three abstaining, and no one voting against.

Every DUP councillor present supported it, even though that party is pro-life.

Ms Milne and the PUP's Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston, who seconded the motion, said that any councillor's positions on a woman's right to choose was irrelevant because the issue was about protecting people from intimidation.

An SDLP spokesman yesterday said: "How long the whip has been withdrawn from the three councillors will be determined by the party leadership over coming days and weeks."

He said that the SDLP council group had requested instruction from the leadership as to how to vote on Monday night.

"They were told to vote in favour of the motion and to stand against the intimidation and harassment of women," he added.

The other four SDLP councillors - Tim Attwood, Brian Heading, Paul McCusker, and Donal Lyons - voted in favour of the motion.

Ms Corr-Johnston said she had been disappointed with the actions of councillors Boyle, Mullan and Convery.

"We worded our motion very carefully to ensure that it wasn't about being pro-choice or pro-life, it was about opposing harassment and ensuring private and confidential healthcare.

"PUP councillor Dr John Kyle is not pro-choice yet he voted for the motion, as did DUP councillors," she said.

"I was disappointed that the three SDLP councillors didn't speak during the debate and tell us why they couldn't support the motion, but at least they didn't vote against it."

The PUP representative declined to comment directly on the trio's suspension.

"That is an internal matter for the SDLP," she said.

"I'm sure it was a very hard day for the councillors concerned."

Mr Long welcomed the disciplinary action.

"My party was shocked that these three councillors adopted a more extreme position than the DUP did," he said.

"It is beyond comprehension as to why they abstained from a motion condemning the harassment of women.

"The DUP are now more progressive on the issue than they are.

"I welcome their suspension."

Speaking in favour of the motion during the debate, SDLP councillor Mr Attwood said: "People have the right to seek information free from any violence, intimidation or threat of violence.

"That's what we (the SDLP) have stood for the last 40 years, that should be the case for any individual.

"There is no place in a modern society for that to be allowed.

"People have the right to protest but they don't have the right to put fear into women."

The motion stated: "The council condemns all harassment and intimidation taking place outside facilities that offer reproductive healthcare, including attempts to physically block access to facilities, verbal intimidation, and the filming and recording of staff and clients entering and leaving the building."

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