Claim that new Belfast City Council committee is a DUP/Sinn Fein ‘carve up’

A new committee pushed through by Sinn Fein and the DUP in Belfast City Council has been described as an attempt “to shut the voices of smaller parties”.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 12:24 pm
Belfast City Hall

A new Standards and Business Committee, recommended by council officers, was approved with Sinn Fein and DUP votes, against the will of the other parties, during the recent meeting of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

A council report states the new Standards and Business Committee’s functions will be “to promote, sustain and safeguard the conduct of councillors,” “to promote a collaborative working relationship between senior officers and members,”and “to ensure the probity of all the council’s proceedings.”

The new committee, the report adds, will deal with “low level disputes” between elected members alleging breaches of the code of conduct, as well as reviewing processes and standing orders.” 

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The decision comes following the controversy over the council’s management of the cremation of republican Bobby Storey in June 2020.

A report by Peter Coll QC was commissioned to look at why eight other families on the day were treated differently to the mourners at the Bobby Storey funeral, amidst accusations that republicans had controlled what happened at Roselawn cemetery. The report found Sinn Féin did not pressurise the council to give his family special treatment.

Nigel Grimshaw, Belfast City Council’s director of city and neighbourhood services, retired from the post “by mutual agreement” last September, a week before a paper into the new Standards committee was commissioned.

After the Peter Coll report was released two months ago, SDLP Councillor Donal Lyons said: “I think that the reputation of this council has taken an awful blow, not only in the context of the report, but in terms of a basic level of empathy.

He added: “going forward out of this we do need to make exceptional efforts to rehabilitate our reputation.”

However his party, the Alliance Party, Greens, and People Before Profit have questioned the creation of the new 20 member committee, specifically on its new delegated powers to receive notices of motion. 

People Before Profit Councillor Fiona Ferguson said: “This appears to be a concerted attempt by Sinn Féin and the DUP to shut the voices of smaller parties out of full council meetings by setting up a carve-up committee. In the wake of a disastrous Covid response from the Executive, any move to limit democratic opposition is abhorrent. 

“Both Sinn Féin and the DUP implemented similar business committee changes at Stormont following the election of Gerry Carroll and others, and the outcome has severely limited the ability of smaller parties to speak.

“This new business committee would be given the power to block motions from being debated at full council meetings. It will fundamentally undermine the ability of smaller parties to have their views heard as they are far more likely to have their motions blocked by big parties. 

“Under these new rules, a motion from a smaller party could be automatically sent to a committee where they do not have a vote. It would allow bigger parties to decide which motions are “strategic” and constitute an “emergency.””

She added: “Every other party on committee voted against this but it was proposed and seconded by Sinn Féin and voted through with the support of the DUP. We think their intentions are clear and unprincipled.”

Alliance Councillor Nuala McAllister said part of the reasoning behind the new committee was to reduce the length of full council meetings, but said it was like using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut.” She said in terms of the smaller parties she was “worried where it would go.”

Green Party Councillor Aine Groogan said the new notice of motion measures were “confusing” and would create “a dual track approach,” while SDLP Councillor Brian Heading said it would “create another council.”

DUP Alderman Brian Kingston said: “Our desire is not to have short meetings, but rather manageable meetings, that focus on our powers as a council.”

He added: “Too often we end up having long debates on matters that are being controlled by the assembly or Westminster, and at times it seems like a vanity project for the councillors.” He said the proposal was “quite sensible, and quite ordinary.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Ronan McLaughlin said: “The vast majority of institutions on this island have a Business Committee in which they can clear business for upcoming meetings.” He said notices of motion and subsequent amendment processes had to be “cleaned up.”

The new committee will begin in the summer and will have a trial period of six months.