A Belfast city councillor has vowed to fight a decision to suspend her from council duties for four months while investigations are carried out into complaints about statements she made about Islam.
Independent councillor Jolene Bunting, who formerly represented the TUV, revealed on social media yesterday that she had been suspended from her duties “for criticising Islam”.
“This is a dark day for democracy and freedom of speech,” the Greater Shankill (Court DEA) representative, who has had links with far-right group Britain First, posted on her Facebook page.
A statement issued by the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards (NILGCS) said the acting commissioner had decided to suspend councillor Bunting for four months while an investigation into complaints against her continues.
The decision follows an interim adjudication hearing at the Resolution Centre in Belfast on September 4.
That hearing was held after the acting commissioner received an interim report on the complaints made against Ms Bunting – complaints arising from public statements made by her in relation to the Islamic religion, her association with Britain First and the publication of a controversial meme on social media.
The hearing was told that from December 15 2017 to August 14 2018, 14 complaints were made against Ms Bunting. One complaint was signed by 87 complainants, while another was signed by a total of 79 members of the public.
According to the NILGCS, the complaints relate to a number of incidents, including a video published online of Ms Bunting and Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, speaking outside the Belfast Islamic Centre on December 13, 2017, a visit to Belfast City Hall’s council chamber by Ms Bunting and Ms Fransen in January this year, comments she made during a council meeting on January 3 and a social media posting of a cartoon meme on May 3.
A statement issued by the NILGCS said: “The Acting Commissioner, Mr Ian Gordon, found that there was prima facie evidence that councillor Bunting had failed to comply with the Local Government Code of Conduct. He determined that a member of the public, knowing all of the relevant facts, would reasonably consider that her conduct had brought her position as a councillor and that of the council into disrepute.
“The acting commissioner found it likely that there has been continuing reputational damage to the city council and that repeated failures by the respondent to comply with the code and subsequent publicity is likely to have had a negative impact on public confidence.”
Reacting to her suspension, Ms Bunting described the decision as “an absolute joke” and said her legal team would be appealing against it in the High Court.
“They are saying the reason for the suspension is that I brought Belfast City Council into disrepute. But the same council has convicted terrorists in its council chamber, yet I am the one that has supposedly brought it into disrepute by stating facts and putting my opinion out there,” she told the News Letter.
Ms Bunting, who stressed that she’d “cut ties” with Britain First earlier this year, added: “I will be taking it to the High Court as soon as I possibly can and hopefully it won’t affect my constituents.
“This is going to cause me an awful lot of problems. I’m in limbo about whether I’m going to be able to stand for election (in 2019) or not, but I certainly will be defending my seat if I’m able to.”
Making his ruling to suspend councillor Bunting, the acting commissioner said he was not convinced by her assertion that her association with Britain First was to encourage it to become more moderate and to improve its structure. He found that the events took place over a period of time, and appeared to be planned and their content premeditated.
“The visit to the council chamber, where Ms Fransen was allowed to wear the ceremonial robes and make comments on her forthcoming trial relating to the incitement of hatred of Muslims, were actions which raised questions about the respondent’s conduct as a councillor,” the NILGCS statement added.
“In relation to the social media meme, he found there was prima facie evidence that the content was sectarian and racist in nature.”
The watchdog’s investigation into Ms Bunting’s conduct continues, with a date for a full hearing yet to be determined.
A spokesperson for Belfast City Council said the local authority wouldn’t be making any comment on the matter.