Belfast Telegraph

Belfast councillor claims 'freedom of expression' after being accused of racist and sectarian tweet

Jolene Bunting (Niall Carson/PA)
Jolene Bunting (Niall Carson/PA)

By Alan Erwin

A Belfast councillor allegedly mocked the Irish famine by posting a racist and sectarian tweet, the High Court heard today.

A judge was also told other complaints against independent representative Jolene Bunting centred on her categorisation of apparent anti-Islamic leaflets as "information".

Ms Bunting is appealing a decision by the Local Government Commissioner for Standards to suspend her for four months pending the outcome of an investigation.

The action, taken against her last September, was subsequently stayed until the legal challenge is determined.

She is accused of a number of breaches the councillors' code of conduct.

Ms Bunting contends that she has Article 10 freedom of expression protection under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Issues have also raised about the evidence required to establish a prima facie breach of the code.

Her suspension followed 14 complaints, some said to relate to public statements about the Islamic religion, her association with the far-right group Britain First, and a meme shared on social media.

Counsel for the Commissioner for Standards, contended that the "cumulative" incidents led to the sanction.

Gordon Anthony cited a cartoon meme tweeted last year as an example of alleged intolerance.

The post depicted two frogs - one larger and wearing a Union flag; the other smaller, apparently ill, wearing an Irish tricolour and with the words "Please be patient, I have famine".

Mr Antony told the court: "The complaint is that this is sectarian, racist (and) mocking the Irish famine, an event in which many people lost their lives."

According to the barrister the tweet contained prima facie evidence of a breach of the code.

Mr Justice Maguire also heard details of Ms Bunting's contributions to a Belfast City Council debate over leaflets distributed in the east of the city last April.

The flyers, which she is not in any way associated with, claimed British people will be a minority in the UK by 2066.

They also stated: "Our children's future will be a third world Islamic Britain if we do nothing."

Other councillors complained about Ms Bunting's contribution to a debate on the leaflets where she said "I believe they were information", adding that "people in this city need to know information about all faiths in society".

Mr Anthony questioned whether the flyers' contents are protected by Article 10.

But during exchanges the judge pointed out that Ms Bunting neither wrote nor distributed them.

Emphasising that he was in no way supporting any views she expressed, Mr Justice Maguire said elected representatives have "a lot of latitude" in what they say during the course of political debate.

Referring to the total 14 complaints brought against the councillor, he suggested: "Some of these cases are much more serious than others, and only some of them would require restraint under Article 10."

The appeal continues.

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