Row after Belfast's atheist mayor skips prayers before dinner at installation
A row has erupted at City Hall after Belfast’s new Lord Mayor dispensed with prayers before her installation dinner.
Nuala McAllister, an atheist, didn’t invite anyone to say grace at the event on Saturday night in what has been described as an unwelcome departure from tradition.
It is understood she felt some people attending the dinner who are not religious may have been uncomfortable with praying, but others have voiced firm opposition to her decision not to respect the decades-old convention.
Instead, in some cases it fell upon leading clerics to offer up grace for guests at their individual tables ahead of the lavish four-course meal in the building’s ornate Great Hall.
The Alliance Party councillor — who outlined her plan to “promote a Belfast that is open, welcome and inclusive” — was not available for comment when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph last night.
The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Noble McNeely, who attended the event for the first time, said he led prayers at his table when it became apparent that it wasn’t on the agenda for the evening.
“There was no grace on the programme and the Master of Ceremonies didn’t call anyone to lead the gathering in grace,” he said.
“I’m sure Dr Laurence Graham (President of the Methodist Church in Ireland) or myself would have been prepared to say grace but that wasn’t requested. I don’t know why that didn’t happen but maybe it is a sign of the times.”
Rev McNeely said he believed “it’s a good thing to give grace before dinner” to “give God thanks for his goodness towards us and for the nourishment of each day”, especially at such a high-profile, public event.
He added: “I understand why people feel disappointment that there was no grace said as part of the proceedings on Saturday but we as ministers recognise it’s the prerogative of the host.”
Free Presbyterian minister Rev David McLaughlin said Ms McAllister’s decision to scrap grace was a “glaring omission”.
Saying grace at the Lord Mayor’s installation dinner is something that has been done by way of custom for the last 25 years.
“I’m very annoyed at this very sad state of affairs; it’s a further indication of the erosion of the Christian heritage upon which this country was founded; indeed, it shows how far we’ve departed from our Christian heritage when we can’t even offer a simple thanks for food,” said Rev McLaughlin.
“If she didn’t want to say grace then she should have arranged for someone else to do it or called upon a member of the clergy to offer a simple word of prayer.”
The minister added that he will be contacting the Alliance Party to express his “extreme displeasure” at the Lord Mayor’s actions. A City Hall source told the Belfast Telegraph that the decision had caused widespread anger among members across parties and had cast a shadow over the night.
“There is no doubting that this is an extremely delicate matter,” said the insider.
“Grace has always been said, even by Lord Mayors who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church or chapel.”
Belfast High Sheriff Tom Haire said that while some guests were annoyed at the absence of grace, his table didn’t miss out, thanks to his neighbour Rev McNeely.
“Our table did its own thing; we invited Rev McNeely to say grace so we weren’t put out in any shape or form,” he said.
“It was obvious, however, that some tables were waiting before starting dinner because they were expecting prayers as is the normal tradition.”
Mr Haire’s DUP colleague Aileen Graham said that, ultimately, it was up to the Lord Mayor whether to say grace or not.
“Saying grace at the installation is a tradition and unionists have a very pro-grace attitude,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it was her night and you can’t force anyone to say grace if they don’t want to.”
The SDLP’s Pat Convery, who was at the event, said the decision didn’t go unnoticed by guests on Saturday night.
“It was noticeable that grace was missed out on this occasion but I have no doubt that the Lord Mayor gave this her consideration,” he said.
“Many people felt it would have been better with grace but it’s her choice.”
PUP politician John Kyle said that “eyebrows were raised” at the “strange” omission.
“It was a surprising break from tradition; if I had the honour of being Lord Mayor it’s something I would definitely do to set the correct tone for the evening,” he added.