Belfast City Council row another dent in city's prestige
Belfast City councillors have been given a stark warning that their political showboating is damaging our global image.
Leading academic and former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, Dr Duncan Morrow, said politicians cannot try to move forward and build a better Belfast without showing better leadership.
The call came after relations sunk to another low at Belfast City Council this week.
As revealed by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, an ugly clash erupted on Wednesday night between the DUP and Alliance over a motion marking the 25th anniversary of the murders of two British soldiers.
The DUP motion recognised "the bravery and restraint of the soldiers".
However, councillors instead supported an amendment by the Alliance Party acknowledging all victims over 40 years.
The DUP branded Alliance "a disgrace", leading some Ulster Unionists to describe it as the "worst council".
But the Alliance Party staunchly defended the amendment, saying the party wanted to move away from a constant "blame culture".
It claimed the DUP motion was part of a campaign to build up tensions at the City Hall.
But Dr Morrow described the behaviour of the councillors as "shocking", adding that this type of row is damaging brand Belfast.
Representatives of retailers also said any "great work" achieved by councillors – including the recent Backin' Belfast campaign – was being overshadowed by rows linked to the Troubles.
"It has to stop and if it is not dealt with it will affect both the image of the city and investment, and lose entrepreneurs," Dr Morrow said.
"The result of this is Belfast trying to move on and constantly then drawn back into really bitter and deep divisions about issues which are not resolvable."
It is the latest row between DUP and Alliance and follows on from the dispute over the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Dr Morrow, who has worked with many organisations tackling sectarianism in Northern Ireland, added: "What is damaging is the persistent, consistent experience and image which is that Northern Ireland is still an unstable place to do business, still not dealing with its difficult issues and is therefore in a world where everybody is looking for investment – we are the last place people will want to come.
"Either we have to agree that we are silent about the past or we need politicians to step up to the plate and address it. We need proper leadership."
Representatives of the retail trade said such council rows take away from the positive work councillors have done to help shops and businesses.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said Belfast City Council was doing some excellent work.
"I cannot praise enough the role of the Lord Mayor and officers, particularly establishing the Backin' Belfast fund," he said.
"But there is a perception when they (retailers) see the headlines that are generated by nearly every council meeting and it does submerge what good work is going on there, and leads to the perception that they are spending all the time fighting on issues relating to the past. That's not the case.
"Sadly, these events take away from the work they have done."
But DUP councillor Christopher Stalford said this week's meeting did not need to become controversial, and laid the blame at Alliance's door.
"The only people that have responsibility for damaging the reputation of Belfast in this instance are those who moved this offensive amendment," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Alliance councillor Mervyn Jones said he believed agreement was needed on how to deal with the past. He added: "If we are to work towards a shared society then we must have an agreed comprehensive method of dealing with the past, instead of concentrating on specific cases."
It all began so positively. Then, just before 8pm, came the last item on the agenda
By Victoria O'Hara
It was the first full council meeting since the clocks had gone forward. And it had started off all so well.
For much of the evening it did indeed feel that a kind of spring had sprung inside the chamber.
Signs of a city reborn from the troubled past were evident with new investment ideas and projects being supported.
As the only journalist in the council chamber, I sat and listened for around three hours as council business was raised, projects praised and debated.
Recent support given to traders, including the impact of the Backin' Belfast campaign, was also discussed.
Yes, it had all been so positive. But just before 8pm the last item of business on the agenda came up.
It was the DUP motion to mark the 25th anniversary of the murder of Corporals Derek Woods and David Howes in west Belfast – infamous, brutal, horrendous killings.
The DUP's Ruth Patterson's opening words were: "I bring this motion to the chamber this evening not as a point-scoring or finger-pointing exercise against those in the chamber who flaunt their republican credentials and are proud of their part in the sordid terrorist campaign that brought murder and mayhem to the streets of this great city and province."
Her party colleague Christopher Stalford addressed the council saying he hoped that the motion would be supported fully and that no one would be submitting an amendment.
But an amendment did come from Alliance.
It was Mervyn Jones who explained the reasons.
"It is important for this council to make a clear and concise statement concerning its support for a shared future and opposition to violence from another source," he said.
"Unfortunately, our history means that barely a month passes without an anniversary of some incident arising from the Troubles. I hope the motion can cover all such anniversaries."
Sinn Fein's Jim McVeigh acknowledged the "courage and decency" of the corporals. But said each and everyone of the people who lost their lives over those horrible 14 days in March 1988 were decent.
As the amendment was passed the anger from the unionist benches was evident, and the spring-like feel had been replaced with a chill.
The last comments came from Mr Stalford, who said: "Lord Mayor, I think it is a disgrace that this council couldn't find it within itself to say the murder of two soldiers was wrong and I think the party that put that amendment should be ashamed of themselves."
The meeting was over.
The clocks had gone forward, but at the end of a three-hour council meeting you would have sworn they had instead gone back – by decades.