Amid threats of strike action, Belfast City Council voted on Thursday night to outsource the running of its leisure centres.
As politicians arrived to the meeting, workers and trade union campaigners bearing red flags gathered at the rear of the City Hall, in a bid to hammer home their demand for such facilities to remain totally council-run.
Last week, NIPSA’s assistant general secretary said they were considering industrial action over the proposed changes; a warning repeated by some outside last night.
As the meeting got under way inside, the chamber was divided by those who wanted to proceed with a plan to start handing over the day-to-day running of the centres to a not-for-profit trust, and those who still wanted to give a chance to a union-backed cost-cutting plan, which would still see the council manage the centres.
Sinn Fein backed the latter proposal, as did the two Ulster Unionist councillors in the chamber, who thought it was worth keeping the option open.
Sinn Fein moved a motion to that effect, with group leader Jim McVeigh telling the chamber: “We still have very significant concerns about democratic oversight in the trust model,” adding that the union-backed alternative was a viable one to work with.
“We’d appeal to the other parties not to close down that option,” he added.
In the end, the Sinn Fein motion was rejected by 32 votes to 18. It came only days after the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee had opted to recommend the ‘trust’ plan.
The chamber had heard that the decision was the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of deliberation over how exactly the city’s centres should be run, and Lee Reynolds, group leader of the DUP, hailed the effort of “political will” which saw the plans pushed through.
It has been claimed that the ‘trust’ model will help save £2m per year in running costs, with a not-for-profit trust able to avail of tax breaks which are not open to the council.
After the vote, Councillor Reynolds said that the decision did not amount to privatisation as some have claimed, and that ownership of the leisure centres will still rest with the council.
Asked about the possibility of strike action which might result from the council’s decision, he said: “How will that help anybody?”