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Belfast council's new Brexit committee kicks off with a dispute and a split down party lines

By Rebecca Black

Political parties have been accused of using Belfast City Council resources for campaigning.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds made the claim at the first meeting of the council's Brexit committee yesterday.

The committee has been set up to look at what implications the UK leaving the European Union on March 29, 2019 will have for Belfast.

Committee chair Seanna Walsh of Sinn Fein opened the inaugural meeting by telling members that its terms of reference include reflecting on areas of impact Brexit may have on Belfast, including economic and funding.

The first order of business was a motion of support for the so-called backstop option.

The EU has proposed a backstop which would mean Northern Ireland remaining with the EU customs union, large parts of the single market and the EU VAT system.

However, the UK suggests a backstop would see the UK as a whole remaining aligned with the EU customs union for a limited time after 2020.

The motion at the council committee was proposed by Sinn Fein's Arder Carson, who described the backstop as an "insurance policy".

He emphasised it should not be diluted, but rather extended.

The SDLP and Alliance Party backed the motion with minor amendments. SDLP councillor Donal Lyons told the committee the backstop was the "bare minimum", describing it as a "safety net that we shouldn't fall beneath".

But unionist parties opposed the motion.

The DUP's Brian Kingston directed his comments to the Sinn Fein members, accusing them of "using the council" because they are "boycotting" Westminster and the Assembly.

"EU negotiators and the UK Government are not waiting for the verdict of Belfast City Council before making their next move," he said.

"Sinn Fein could have influence at Westminster, which they boycott, or in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive ... but there is a triple boycott going on."

Mr Reynolds described the discussion as "just ridiculous", arguing that the committee had been given a remit and claimed the proposed motion and discussion went beyond it.

"What we have is political parties using council resources for their political campaigning," he told the committee.

Sinn Fein's Ciaran Beattie hit back, saying his party runs for Westminster on an absentionist ticket, and claiming that the Assembly remains collapsed due to "DUP scandals" and the party "refusing rights", including for Irish language speakers and equal marriage.

The motion was passed by 10 votes to seven, with Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party voting for, while the DUP, UUP and PUP voted against.

Belfast is the first council in Northern Ireland to have a dedicated committee to look at the potential impact of Brexit.

Council officers have been tasked with assessing the impact that Brexit may have on its services, and are undertaking an audit of services to identify the nature and extent of potential impact on funding, personnel, procurement/contracts and legislation.

The committee is next due to meet on September 20.

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