Unionists last night hit out after Newry and Mourne District Council firmly backed its mayor’s call for traders not to sell goods from Israel.
It emerged at the end of last month that the mayor, Sinn Fein councillor Daire Hughes, had written to traders in the district asking them not to stock Israeli goods in light of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.
He also asked them to provide a list of products they stocked from Israel to assist the boycott.
As a result Newry and Mourne councillors last night debated a UUP motion of no confidence in the mayor’s ability to represent all citizens equally, calling on him to apologise or resign.
However, Mr Hughes stood firm and was strongly backed in a vote last night by 21 votes to three, with three abstentions. The mayor was backed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, although several members of the latter reportedly abstained.
UUP councillor David Taylor, who tabled the motion, said: “Whilst it is disappointing it is certainly not surprising that republican and nationalist representatives have failed to support the motion calling on the mayor to apologise for his recent actions in respect of requesting shops to boycott Israeli goods.
“The mayor has clearly abused his position and displayed shameless arrogance in attempting to bully traders into removing specific goods from their stores – and it is extremely disappointing that the majority of councillors have failed to display the resolve to hold Councillor Hughes to account for his unacceptable behaviour.”
Mr Taylor added: “We were correct to bring this issue before tonight’s meeting and it is very unfortunate that others within the chamber lack any form of backbone in standing up to Sinn Fein, and continue to permit republican attempts to ride roughshod over rights and freedoms enjoyed by our local community.”
But Mayor Hughes dismissed the “politically motivated” UUP motion.
“It was also not about Gaza,” the councillor said. “This motion was tabled and supported by those who are opposed to Sinn Fein.
“I will continue to represent all the people of Newry and Mourne District Council equally as mayor.
“I will also continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza and to call for a lasting and verifiable ceasefire and an end to violence in the Middle East.”
SDLP councillor Michael Carr said the mayor’s position should be “non-partisan and non-political and it [the letter] was a rather foolish thing to do”.
However, he voted against calling for an apology because it was “not a sackable offence”.
But Ukip councillor Henry Reilly said the mayor’s letter was “the Northern Ireland equivalent of the Nuremberg rules for boycotting Jewish businesses in 1930s Nazi Germany”. The mayor’s office had been “impaired” as the Israeli conflict “pans out in sectarian terms in Northern Ireland”, he said.
SDLP councillors had abstained from voting, he said, because they had disagreed with the mayor’s office being used in such a manner. However, Mr Carr could not confirm this.
Earlier this year the Equality Commission called on the council to review its decision to name a children’s play park after IRA member Raymond McCreesh.
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said recently it was “unacceptable” for its members to be targeted with calls for boycotts in relation to the Gaza conflict.
“Our members only want to run their shops and have no interest in being dragged into this dispute,” he said.