Rodgers calls for curbs on Belfast council books of condolence

Belfast City Hall was illuminated in the colours of the Belgian flag after the attacks in March
Belfast City Hall was illuminated in the colours of the Belgian flag after the attacks in March
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A veteran unionist politician has called for a curb on the number of official displays of sympathy and mourning at Belfast City Hall.

Long-serving UUP councillor Jim Rodgers told the News Letter that the opening of books of condolence had become too regular an occurrence.

He also said that, alongside the growth in cases of such books being opened, there has been a decline in the number of people actually signing them.

He called for proper criteria to be established, stating under what circumstances such an official act of recognition should take place – adding that the same should apply to the illumination of Belfast City Hall using special lighting.

The councillor for the Ormiston district of east Belfast made the comments after Sinn Fein called for both a book of condolence and special lighting to mark the murders of more than 280 people in Baghdad due to an ISIS bomb last Sunday.

Mr Rodgers made clear that he offered his sympathies to Iraqis affected by the bombing.

So far this year, books of condolence have been opened for the victims of two other ISIS atrocities – the Belgian attacks in March (killing 32 people), and last month’s shooting in a gay nightclub in Florida (killing 49).

Last November, a book was opened for the victims of the Paris massacre (with 130 victims).

In September 2014, there was one for Ian Paisley. The month before that there was one for the victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and a month before that one had been opened for the victims of a series of air crashes.

When he spoke to the News Letter last week Mr Rodgers was not sure whether one should be opened in the case of the Baghdad bombing – which he dubbed “dreadful” – and said he would consult with party colleagues.

He said: “We’ve had numerous books of condolence over the last few years. And I stated recently that we need to have criteria. Because I’m not against books of condolence being opened.

“But it used to be, up until about two years ago, you’d have found eight to 10 books – sometimes even more – being filled [with signatures and messages of support].

“Now, the numbers are quite small.”

He suggested that people expressing themselves on the internet could have been a potential factor in the decline.

He continued: “Where do you stop with books of condolence? I get requests virtually every other week from people ... Where do you stop? That’s the problem.”

He had spent more than 23 years on the council, and said: “You’d have maybe in the past seen about one book per year.

“Now it’s virtually every month somebody saying we should open a book, and sometimes I’m not so sure really if the message does get home to people that the citizens of Belfast are thinking about them.”

Mr Rodgers – a former lord mayor of he city – suggested criteria could include the tragic events in question taking place in “countries we have close links with”, or “based on the type of tragedy or the numbers who have lost their lives”.

However, he concluded that whatever the criteria, it would not “please everybody”.

There is already “partial criteria” in place for the special illumination of City Hall, but this is “iffy”.

He said Sinn Fein was particularly prone to requesting such special occasions.