George Galloway at Ulster Hall Belfast: DUP seek to deny use of council building to MP
Belfast City Council is taking legal advice after unionists called for Respect MP George Galloway to be stopped from speaking at the Ulster Hall.
But the outspoken critic of Israel hit back, saying being lectured on good relations by the DUP "is a bit like being told to sit up straight by the Hunchback of Notre Dame".
The Respect MP for Bradford West has also threatened to sue the council if the Saturday Night with George Galloway event on August 23 is not allowed to proceed.
The DUP has formally requested a review of the decision by council officers to grant the use of the Ulster Hall for the speaking engagement.
Former Deputy Mayor Christopher Stalford insisted that his party and the UUP are not seeking to "curtail the loathsome Galloway's freedom of speech".
"We are, however, seeking to deny him the use of a council facility to spew anti-Israel hatred," he said.
"He can hire another building elsewhere if he chooses."
Ulster Unionist Party councillor Jim Rodgers has also written to the City Council's Director of Development about the booking, asking him to review it.
Neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP commented on the matter yesterday.
But Alliance said Mr Galloway should be allowed to stage his event at the Ulster Hall – where at least one of its activists will be protesting against him.
Alliance deputy mayor Maire Hendron said Mr Galloway's comments about Israel were irresponsible, and had led to increased tension.
"However, the Alliance Party has never endorsed censorship and been a vocal opponent to any attempts to impose unnecessary restrictions," she said.
"Alliance will stand against any attempts to censor an event or individual simply because their views do not match the views of the majority."
However, Alliance member Gary Spedding, who is also a Palestinian Solidarity activist, said he had written to every councillor in Belfast urging them to oppose the event.
"Some people assume I would be on the same page as George Galloway but nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "I feel it would be inappropriate for a man who recently declared his own constituency to be an 'Israeli free zone' to be given a platform at an historic venue which is part-run or owned by the City Council."
There have been reports that the Yorkshire Police are currently investigating comments made by Mr Galloway urging people in Bradford to reject all Israeli goods, services, academics and tourists.
But yesterday, Mr Galloway said he has not been contacted by police. He also said he will not withdraw from the event.
"To be lectured on good relations by the DUP is a bit like being told to sit up straight by the Hunchback of Notre Dame," he said. "It's a commercial contract with the Ulster Hall, signed, sealed and will be delivered, except on terms of very severe compensation.
"A great deal of money has already been spent, the tickets are going like hot cakes, so a great deal of income would be lost and that would be a very bad deal for the taxpayers in Belfast."
The event had been booked by a third party promoter, who hired the venue from Belfast City Council and takes responsibility for its planning and content. The council's programming policy does not preclude political events organised by third party promoters.
A council spokesperson confirmed the issue is now being considered and legal advice is being sought.
The Ulster Hall in Belfast city centre is no stranger to politics and controversy, and has a special place in unionist history.
The 155-year-old building played host to anti Home Rule rallies at the start of the 20th century.
In 1986, the paramilitary group Ulster Resistance was announced by the DUP at the hall in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The rally was chaired by the Democratic Unionist Party member Sammy Wilson and addressed by party colleagues Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Ivan Foster.
In the 1990s, it became the scene of a series of meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council over the Good Friday Agreement. It also hosted a major Sinn Fein rally in 2002.