Mayor apologises for offence caused at cadet snub
Belfast's lord mayor has apologised after provoking a public outcry over his refusal to present an army cadet with a Duke of Edinburgh award.
Sinn Fein's Niall O Donnghaile said he did not mean to offend the teenage girl and her family during a presentation ceremony at Belfast City Hall.
He said: "I have never and would never go out of my way to cause offence to anyone."
Rival parties, especially Democratic Unionists, demanded he apologise after he pulled out midway through the ceremony earlier this week to avoid interacting with the teenage girl. He said he stepped aside because he did not want to compromise his Irish republican principles.
Councillors called for an emergency meeting but just hours before they were due to meet tonight Mr O Donnghaile moved to try and defuse heightening tensions by issuing an apology.
He said: "I have consistently sought to reach out to unionism and loyalism and to be a Mayor for all the people of Belfast. My decision to attend the recent Duke of Edinburgh awards ceremony was taken with this in mind.
"I have never and would never go out of my way to cause offence to anyone. In any society moving out of conflict we all need to be very conscious of how we deal with sensitive issues.
"Balancing these considerations is not simple. We all need to be tolerant of our different traditions and aspirations. I accept that my decision not to present an award to a British Army Cadet has caused genuine annoyance. I apologise to anyone who has been offended and in particular the young woman involved and her family. That was clearly never my intention."
Unionists had earlier demanded the mayor apologise or resign. It was also claimed that a Facebook campaign against him had attracted more than 3,000 backers.
A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sammy Wilson, himself a former mayor and now the Minister for Finance and Personnel at the Northern Ireland Executive condemned his actions.
"It is an absolute disgrace that a young person should be snubbed in such a public manner as this.
"I am not at all surprised by the reaction.
"He has touched a raw nerve and caused deep anger."
Mr O Donnghaile, who at 26 is the city's youngest ever first citizen, had offered to meet the young cadet and her family to discuss his decision, which he said was "nothing personal".
"At the last minute I was informed that one of the awards was to be presented to a representative of the Army Cadet Force," he said.
"In order to avoid any unnecessary sensitivities to either party, it was arranged for the outgoing chairman of the organisation to present some of the certificates alongside me.
"I take my responsibilities as being a mayor for all very seriously."