Belfast Telegraph

I never meant to suggest corruption: ex-Lord Mayor

By Andrew Madden and Claire McNeilly

Concerns have been raised over an apology issued by former Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister for distributing a leaflet that her fellow councillors said alleged corruption in City Hall's planning committee.

Ms McAllister, who stood down as the city's First Citizen on Monday night, made the public apology yesterday at the end of an Ombudsman's investigation into alleged misconduct.

But anger has been expressed over the time it took for the complaint to be investigated, as well as the way in which the former mayor conveyed her apologies to colleagues.

The SDLP's Brian Heading said that, while he welcomed the apology in part, there was a lot of anger over the fact that it took so long "for her to send us a note".

He said: "We had to wait two years and two months for a note - and yet the councillor is admitting that the material that she and the Alliance Party published could have damaged the reputation of individual councillors and Belfast City Council planning committee."

Cllr Heading voiced concern at the fact it had taken Cllr McAllister five months to respond to the draft investigation report sent to her on December 28, 2017, as well as taking the Ombudsman two years to progress the complaint.

In March 2016, a total of 31 unionist and nationalist councillors reported Nuala McAllister to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman regarding a leaflet distributed on her behalf across North Belfast.

Under the headline "What have they got to hide?", the councillor criticised other parties which had opposed the audio recording of planning committee meetings at Belfast City Council. Accompanying the article was a picture of a jar stuffed with cash.

The council passed an Alliance motion in December 2016, pledging that all future meetings would be audio recorded.

Sinn Fein supported the resolution, while the DUP, SDLP and UUP opposed it, on the grounds that they had received legal advice warning there would be serious penalties for councillors if they made mistaken comments during planning meetings.

The Alliance representative has now authored an apology on the Ombudsman's website and will also have to contact each of the 31 complainants.

Councillor McAllister said she had not intended to allege members of the planning committee were corrupt, rather she wanted to highlight the need for transparency at City Hall.

She said: "It did not occur to me that the text and photograph taken together could be interpreted by individuals as alleging or implying corruption by councillors in the discharge of their council duties."

Cllr McAllister added she now accepted that the presentation of the article alongside the photographic image was "open to alternative interpretation" and did cause concern among members of the planning committee.

"I, therefore, wish to set the record straight and I apologise specifically to the members of the planning committee and those councillors who complained about the article for any concern caused."

Belfast Telegraph

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