Veteran Belfast councillor Jim Rodgers: My misgivings over handling of books of condolence

The longest-serving councillor in Belfast has questioned the way in which books of condolence are now being handled at the council.

Jim Rodgers was speaking in the wake of a book being opened for Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian journalist who was killed in an Israeli military operation on May 11.

Her employers, the Al Jazeera network, said she was wearing press markings when she was shot in the head as she covered some raids in the West Bank.

Whilst this is the first book of 2022, Mr Rodgers said the overall number has ballooned in recent years.

Belfast councillor Billy Hutchinson signs a book of condolences that was opened up for the victims of the Manchester Arena bomb attack in May 2017

He described the killing of Ms Abu Akleh as a “terrible tragedy” but wondered “in other countries of the world, how many of them would open a book of condolence about somebody in NI?”

He said: “It used to be much stricter. If you look back over the years there was maybe maximum two per year.

“Some of us have asked ourselves the question – is this the right way of going about it?

“It’s mostly now done online. Prior to that there was the book signing in the city hall on the ground floor, led by the lord mayor, deputy lord mayor, the members of the eight political parties.”

And whilst those occasions could lead to several physical books being filled with signatures, since the books went online-only due to Covid, “a lot of people don’t know about it – they don’t see it online”.

Mrs Abu Akleh’s opened on May 17 and closed 10 days later, with 85 signatures.

The council was asked if, for example, anybody has proposed a book for the recent Texas school shooting (when 21 people, mainly aged nine to 11, were killed by a teenager with an assault rifle on May 24). Nobody has.

“I would say Belfast City Council – ok, it’s the biggest council – but they would have more books of condolence online than any of the other councils,” said Mr Rodgers.

“It used to be it was for prominent people in Northern Ireland, or the UK, or even various parts of the world.

“But I think some people now, sadly for political purposes, just ask for a book of condolence to be opened.

“Some people I know had their doubts about it. It was a terrible tragedy, what happened to her.

“But people then would point and say ‘such-and-such has died – are they not important?’

“A number of people have emailed me, texted me, phoned me, pointing out: Why was there not a book of condolence for this person, or that person, or the other person?

“It’s very hard to give them an answer. Where would you stop?”

Asked what the procedure is for opening a book, the council said: “Any elected member can request that a book of condolence is opened.

“The decision rests with the lord mayor who, upon receiving a request, will engage with party group leaders to seek consensus.”

It did not say who proposed Ms Abu Akleh’s name.

These are its other recent books of condolence:

• HRH Prince Philip, April 2021

• Captain Sir Tom Moore, February 2021

• Babyloss Awareness Week, October 2020

• John Hume, August 2020

• Jack Charlton, July 2020

• Noah Donohoe, June 2020

• George Floyd, June 2020