Independent councillor Jolene Bunting has come under fire after appearing to defend “Islamophobic” leaflets distributed in Belfast which are being investigated by police as a “hate incident”.
The Alliance Party councillor David Armitage raised the issue of the leaflets at the City Council on Monday.
They were hand delivered hand-delivered to homes in the Ravenhill area, a part of Belfast with a diverse ethnic make-up.
Chief Inspector David Moore confirmed last week that the PSNI were “treating this as a hate incident” and “making a number of enquiries.”
He added: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to make it clear that hate crime, in any form, is unacceptable.”
Raising the issue on Monday, Councillor Armitage said: ““Even now there are still leaflets being delivered by race hate groups, by fascist, racist groups that have links with Britain First. This disgusts me and lots of people in my community as well and I’m sure all of us here will condemn these fascist, racist leaflets.”
Responding, councillor Bunting said: “I just really didn’t want this to go by unsaid. I have seen these leaflets and to be honest with you I have been told that there was lies in them and I’ve been told that they were racist and they were awful leaflets. I believe that they were information and it may not have been put in the most tactful way but people in this city need to know information about all faiths in the city. If those faiths are not going to interact with people in the city then people will take what they want from what they see in the public and what they are seeing online.”
Referencing the Telford grooming scandal, she said this was going to be “highlighted over and over again.” She added: “It is not going to go away.”
“It’s up to the leaders in this city to address people’s concerns and not just label them as racist or fascist. Fascists are the people who don’t want anyone to speak out about Islam.”
Her comments sparked a chorus of condemnation.
UUP councillor Chris McGimpsey said: “I’ve seen these leaflets. They are racist. They are islamophobic. They are misleading. They are filled with so-called facts which are not accurate.”
Alliance councillor Kate Nicholl said: “I am actually shaking, because I can’t believe something that is being investigated as a hate crime by a councillor of this chamber as ‘information’. What councillor Bunting has just said is atrocious. Leadership is about condemning hatred and that is something all of us should be doing.”
PUP councillor John Kyle added: “I saw the leaflets. They are racist, islamophobic, they stir up fear and are full of misinformation. I’d like to, however, say that we do need to recognise that there is concern and fear within our communities about the Muslim faith. People don’t understand it. People do feel intimidated by it, and so therefore I make that point to first of all commend what councillor Armitage has done in pioneering the three faiths forum. I think the three faiths forum is doing some excellent work and deserves our support. I think there is a real task in terms of information, education and reassurance, helping communities to understand each other. I think it is a mistake to say there are absolutely no grounds for these fears. People do feel concerned. They read about ISIS in England and attacks there, and it causes perhaps irrational, unfounded fears. But the first step is to recognise that there are fears there.
“The second step is to deal with them in a constructive and cohesive way, in a way that builds community, that increases understanding, and a way that makes Belfast a more peaceful, cohesive, better integrated city.”
Sinn Féin councillor Deirdre Hargey said: “These leaflets are shameful and anyone who defends them is shameful in what they attempt to do.”
Graham Craig, DUP councillor, said: “I want to start off by saying how proud I am to represent the most ethnically diverse DEA (District Electoral Area) not only in Belfast, but in Northern Ireland. I would have a lot of sympathy for councillor McGimpsey and councillor Kyle. It’s very easy to condemn people who are fearful, as racists. Many of them may have racist ideas, and those ideas should be condemned.”
He added: “But what I would say to the people that find it so easy to stand up in this chamber and condemn - it might make you feel warm inside, it might make you feel good, unfortunately it does not deal with the problem. If we want to tackle racism and xenophobia, we must tackle it with the power of our arguments and the strength of our ideas.”
SDLP councillor Donal Lyons said: “There is a clear line between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred. This has plenty of standards internationally and locally and I believe these leaflets and some of the comments made here cross over that line.
“This really is a sordid little affair and some members of this room need to take cognisance of that and just stop.”