Pro-life campaigners have accused the SDLP of “a grotesque attack on free speech” after the party disciplined three Belfast councillors.
Councillors Pat Convery (group leader), Kate Mullan (deputy leader), and Declan Boyle were suspended indefinitely after abstaining from a vote on a motion condemning harassment of women outside medical facilities, particularly ones providing abortions.
The party said its councillors had been instructed to support the motion, brought by Green and PUP members, during Monday’s council meeting.
Party leader Colum Eastwood has defended the party’s decision and warned that any members who go against party policy will be disciplined.
The suspended councillors will now sit as independent members and will not represent the party, which now has just four representatives on Belfast City Council.
The trio could not be reached for comment yesterday.
However, Cllr Boyle was yesterday quoted in the Belfast Telegraph as saying he was “disappointed” at the party’s decision to suspend him.
He added: “I don’t support the harassment or intimidation of anybody but I do believe in standing up for the rights of the unborn. I am proud to be pro-life and I have absolutely no regrets about how I voted.”
But Mr Eastwood said Mr Boyle “should think very clearly” about his stance on the matter.
He added: “The party has internal disciplinary procedures.
“They are not finished yet and how people act in the coming days and weeks will obviously inform those procedures.”
Belfast SDLP Cllr Brian Heading yesterday told the News Letter he felt the party’s decision was “justified”.
But the decision has been condemned by Liam Gibson of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, who described it as “outrageous”.
He said anti-abortion protesters outside the Marie Stopes reproductive healthcare centre in Belfast are “acting perfectly within the law as they seek to continue to uphold the right to life of unborn children”.
“They do not involve themselves in harassment, intimidation, acts of harassment or any other behaviour which could be construed as challenging the law,” he added.
Defending the decision to suspend the three Belfast councillors, Mr Eastwood said: “The party’s position is clear.
“We have been against the harassment and intimidation of anyone since our foundation.”