SDLP suspends much of Belfast team in abortion protest row

Tim Attwood is now likely to be the new group leader
Tim Attwood is now likely to be the new group leader

The suspension of three of the SDLP’s seven-strong Belfast City Council team – including its group leader and deputy – over a disagreement about abortion protests heralds an end to past indiscipline.

That is the view of SDLP executive member Pat McCarthy, an ex-Lord Mayor of Belfast, who contrasted the action with the previous leadership of Dr Alasdair McDonnell – whom he dubbed “Dr Doolittle”, on the basis he “does nothing”.

Councillors Pat Convery (group leader), Kate Mullan (deputy leader), and Declan Boyle were the only councillors not to back a motion on Monday on “intimidation” at medical facilities, particularly ones providing abortions.

The Green motion, seconded by the PUP, condemned bids “to physically block access to facilities, verbal intimidation, and the filming and recording of staff and clients”.

SDLP councillor Tim Attwood told the chamber: “Yes, as a former student activist I was involved in many student protests, and people have the right to protest.

“But they do not have the right to intimidate, put fear into, women or any individualin Belfast or any part of this society, and that should be the case and should be clear for everybody to say that.”

Fifty councillors voted in favour (including members of both major unionist parties), none voted against, and three abstained – namely, the suspended SDLP trio. They had been told to back the motion.

Efforts to reach all three last night were unsuccessful.

The party has a long-standing pro-life stance, and asked if this may be a sign of a wider split, Mr McCarthy said: “I hope not. I don’t think so.”

He pointed out that the vote did not focus on the act of abortion itself, but rather the nature of the right to protest.

He highlighted the relatively-new leadership of Colum Eastwood, who took over from Dr McDonnell (current MP for South Belfast) in 2015.

“A lot of people have [said] in the past that there’s not enough discipline,” said Mr McCarthy. He said previously some members were “let away with murder”.

In 2015, Dr McDonnell had appeared reluctant to discipline nine councillors who failed to vote in line with party policy to reject the naming of a Newry play park after IRA man Raymond McCreesh.

“Colum is turning round, he’s starting with a new brush and that’s it – there’s going to be discipline,” said Mr McCarthy.

The SDLP last night said the suspensions are for an indeterminate period.

A party source said it was likely councillor Attwood will be the new group leader.