Belfast Telegraph

Behaviour reflects badly on how local government does business

By Chris McGimpsey

The shenanigans yesterday in Belfast City Hall were a poor reflection of the manner of how we do business here in local government.

The fact that a decision to honour two world statesmen should cause clear division for all to see was not particularly edifying.

The SDLP have been running for a while that we should give the Freedom of Belfast to Bill Clinton (they still refer to him as President) and Senator George Mitchell. It is a 20th birthday present.

The reason they are pushing for this now is because it will be a nice addendum to the international conference at Queen's University to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement. It is even proposed that the ceremony would not take place in City Hall as is always the case, but, rather, it would happen on the QUB Campus.

Apart from the appearance of stunt politics by the SDLP, there are also a number of substantive points that need to be considered.

While it is true that Clinton was able to exert influence on Gerry Adams and some others, and George Mitchell chaired many long and torturous sessions of political debate, the real heroes of the deliverance of a working administration within Northern Ireland were David Trimble and the UUP and John Hume and the SDLP. Attempts by the UUP councillors to have Hume and Trimble added to the award were thwarted.

The debate in the council chamber was careful. Everyone rightly expressed admiration for the endeavours of the two American politicians, but there remained some confusion. Sinn Fein spoke highly of the achievement of a process, large parts of which they were absent from.

They did not, for example, involve themselves in the Strand One discussions on the government of Northern Ireland. And, of course, the entire operation was dogged by the refusal of the IRA to commit to decommissioning. They did not sign up to the Agreement.

The DUP members mostly absented themselves from the chamber, but the five who attended indicated their support for the motion. Councillor Guy Spence pointed out that he was only six years old at the time. He could be forgiven for not remembering that the DUP created the mother of all arguments when Mitchell's name was proposed for chairman. Mitchell was not unbiased, they claimed. He could not be impartial, they stated. They bitterly opposed the Agreement.

The Ulster Unionists maintained their position, that the proposed honour was not what it seemed. But our substantial point remains that to single out the two Americans alone was to ignore the fact that the heavy lifting would be undertaken for years to come by the UUP and the SDLP.

The Good Friday Agreement looks tarnished and war worn at the moment. Stormont might well collapse under the weight of its own pointlessness in the not too distant future. Bill and George may be happy enough to get out of Northern Ireland with the scrolls for their heroic work untattered. The rest of us? We will continue to try to make this place work for all of its citizens.

Chris McGimpsey is a Belfast City Ulster Unionist councillor

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