Row son coun­cil over car­toon­ist and the Belfast Blitz me­mo­rial sad in­dict­ment of our pol­i­tics

With no Assem­bly, City Hall largest demo­cratic fo­rum here, and it’s not easy to watch, says Ruth Dud­ley Ed­wards

Belfast Telegraph - - VIEWPOINT -

Last week I watched about an hour of the Belfast City Coun­cil webcast, which at var­i­ous times made me laugh, fume, plunged me into gloom and gave me some hope. Here’s some of what came up last Mon­day un­der the um­brella of the strate­gic pol­icy and re­sources com­mit­tee.

There was the re­quest made in De­cem­ber by Brian John Spencer, an artist I like and ad­mire, to make a draw­ing of the cham­ber dur­ing the Jan­uary coun­cil meet­ing.

There’s is a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of artists paint­ing par­lia­ments in ses­sion, so you’d think coun­cil­lors would feel flat­tered.

But Sinn Fein, in a fury over a bril­liant Spencer car­toon about the party’s hypocrisy on Kingsmill, had re­acted like an old-style Ir­ish bishop (Bishop Bren­nan from Fa­ther Ted any­one?) and at a chaotic meet­ing had found a way of vot­ing it down.

Last Mon­day, though, this was chal­lenged elo­quently from all sides as cen­sor­ship that breached Mr Spencer’s rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Re­al­is­ing it was go­ing to lose this time (Donal Lyons of the SDLP de­scribed its stance as “ab­so­lute farce”), Sinn Fein’s Ciaran Beat­tie said an­grily that even if he got per­mis­sion, Mr Spencer would not be al­lowed to draw him or his col­leagues.

The mo­ment I laughed was when Sinn Fein’s Arder Car­son de­clared that since it was his demo­cratic right to refuse to be painted, any­one vot­ing for the artist was “cen­sor­ing me by me hav­ing to leave the cham­ber”.

To their credit, for Mr Spencer spares no one in his car­toons (you should see the one he did of me ), ev­ery­one op­posed Sinn Fein.

This has ex­posed the party to a great deal of ridicule on so­cial me­dia, but as coun­cil­lor Jeff Dud­geon pointed out, it’s “a fear­some ex­am­ple of what life will be like if they gain strength at May’s coun­cil elec­tions”.

There was some be­wil­der­ing stuff about the Coun­cil­lors’ Code of Con­duct, which ap­pears to be out of date and mired in bu­reau­cratic pro­ce­dures hin­der­ing the proper con­duct of busi­ness and are now lead­ing coun­cil­lors to leave meet­ings be­cause of tech­ni­cal con­flicts of in­ter­est.

On Mon­day this pro­vided the DUP and Sinn Fein with the op­por­tu­nity to dodge dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the way in which they dish out to their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties fi­nan­cial spoils from the So­cial In­vest­ment Fund and show no sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity about pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity.

They cer­tainly show no in­ter­est in coun­cil­lor Dud­geon’s sug­ges­tion that a rather bet­ter use of some of the £500,000 be­ing thrown at loy­al­ist and repub­li­can com­mu­nity fes­ti­vals to dis­cour­age bon­fires would be to al­lo­cate £200,000 of it for the cre­ation of seven jobs to re­move dis­fig­ur­ing and point­less graf­fiti from the walls of Belfast.

At least on the is­sue of money be­ing squan­dered, Al­liance and the SDLP don’t usu­ally side with Sinn Fein.

They have done, though, over many is­sues, in­clud­ing the scan­dal of the Blitz Me­mo­rial.

The facts are sim­ple: four Ger­man air raids in 1941, on the night of April 7-8, April 15, the night of May 4-5 and the night of May 5-6, killed 970 mostly poor Catholic and Protes­tant Belfast peo­ple.

There is even a Free State di­men­sion, for de­spite its neu­tral­ity Taoiseach Ea­mon de Valera sent 13 fire en­gines and 70 men to help with the ter­ri­ble af­ter­math.

Coun­cil­lor Dud­geon, who pro­posed a me­mo­rial al­most four years ago, strove des­per­ately to avoid it be­ing

po­lit­i­cally con­tentious, and a pri­vate char­ity of­fered £100,00 to­wards the cost. But Sinn Fein, SDLP and Al­liance have been hold­ing it up, us­ing it as a bar­gain­ing chip in get­ting more na­tion­al­ist and fe­male images.

De­clan Boyle, Pat Con­very and Kate Mul­lan — who left the SDLP over free­dom-of-con­science is­sues — were con­sis­tently strong in sup­port­ing this non-sec­tar­ian project, which may go through be­cause Al­liance is now ab­stain­ing. But as the his­to­rian Brian Bar­ton puts it, “the pro­tracted party in­fight­ing and dis­pu­ta­tion that this mat­ter has gen­er­ated… is a grave in­dict­ment of its po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship”.

Still, with the col­lapse of the Ex­ec­u­tive and Sinn Fein’s ab­sten­tion from West­min­ster, coun­cils are the only place to find po­lit­i­cal ac­tion these days.

Vot­ers should be keep­ing a very keen eye on the we­b­casts.

The coun­cil cham­ber at Belfast City Hall

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