Alliance now sit with unionists in council due to seating problems

City Hall
City Hall

Recent changes to Belfast City Council have led to some unlikely bedfellows sharing each side of the divided chamber.

Previously, the benches were split on the following lines: unionists sitting together on one side, nationalists and the Alliance Party on the other.

However, the new council has 60 members, as opposed to the old 51 – forcing a re-think about who sits where.

In addition to the new seating arrangements, new “presiding officers” (who perform similar functions at meetings as the mayor and his deputy) have been selected – with Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey set to chair the meetings.

The PUP, DUP and UUP are now all sharing one side of the chamber with the Alliance Party, 18 months after the savage row over flying the Union Flag at City Hall saw the party become the butt of unionist anger.

Meanwhile, the SDLP and Sinn Fein are sitting on the other set of benches alongside the Green Party, People Before Profit ... and the TUV’s sole city councillor Jolene Bunting.

The UUP’s Jim Rodgers, the longest-serving member of the council, said it was the first time ever he could recall Alliance sharing their ‘side’.

“This was to ensure we did not require having to get new benches manufactured,” he said, adding that there had been talk of turning the chamber into a kind of “horse-shoe” shape.

However, being a listed building, such an idea would need planning permission.

Asked if he could see any friction as a result of the changes, he said no.

“It maybe does send out a message that we all really, genuinely want to work together and make a much better council, and much better city,” he told the News Letter.

The city’s new council met for the first time on Wednesday. The gathering lasted only 50 minutes, and mainly dealt with procedural matters such as the appointment of councillors to lead committees.

Among the new appointments was that of councillor Hargey as presiding councillor, tasked with keeping order at the meetings.

She had been one of the customers in Magennis’ Bar in the Markets area the night that Robert McCartney was murdered by republican thugs in 2005. She said she saw nothing of the attack.

Her deputy is outspoken unionist councillor Ruth Patterson, whose online tirade against Sinn Fein last year led to a police investigation.

Belfast, like other councils around the Province, is in a period of transition, with the new “shadow” council – elected on May 22 – now conducting meetings while the old, still-running council (comprising many of the same members) also meets.