Ruth Patterson: Suspended councillor insists she only ‘exercised free speech’

A Belfast city councillor who was suspended for six months for breaching the Local Government Code of Conduct has said she is considering mounting a High Court legal challenge.

Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 9:58 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th March 2019, 11:00 am
Alderman Ruth Patterson has said she won't be seeking re-election in May. Pic: Pacemaker

Alderman Ruth Patterson insists she “exercised free speech” when she made controversial comments in the council chamber in July 2017 linking a north Belfast football club to an alleged high-ranking member of the IRA.

The sanction against the independent representative for the Botanic DEA, imposed by the Local Government Commissioner for Standards at a hearing in Belfast yesterday, will take effect from March 11. But Alderman Patterson has said she will not be seeking re-election in May.

A complaint about her speech – written for her by loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson – linking Crumlin Star FC to “a man named in Parliament as a senior member of the Provisional IRA” was raised by SDLP councillor Tim Attwood, who branded her remarks “dangerous and reckless.”

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SDLP councillor Tim Attwood with Crumlin Star representatives Paul O'Loan (trustee) and Patrick McGlinchey (secretary) outside the offices of the Local Government Commissioner for Standards.

Commissioner Marie Anderson ruled that Alderman Patterson’s “deliberate and premeditated actions” had put the club and its members at risk, forcing them to review their security measures.

She said the former DUP councillor’s remarks went beyond the boundaries of proper political debate and were “unnecessary and offensive”.

Mrs Anderson decided that Alderman Patterson’s conduct at the meeting brought her position as a councillor, and the council, into disrepute and imposed a six-month suspension.

While Alderman Patterson had initially apologised for her actions on a ‘councillor response form’, saying “I bitterly regret and sincerely apologise for my actions”, she later retracted the apology.

Reacting to her suspension, Alderman Patterson branded the sanction “excessive” and claimed it was “more about the optics given it has no practical effect after a mere one month has elapsed.”

She criticised Cllr Attwood for posting details about the outcome of the hearing on social media before she had been informed by the commissioner, branding him “a little tell-tale tit.”

“I began my service to my country in the Ulster Defence Regiment, I dedicated much of my adult life in public service as a political representative and I leave my post as Alderman on a high having stood up for free speech, for the right of the unionist community to challenge the nationalist narrative and most of all for the right of elected representatives to speak for their constituents on matters which are of public interest,” she said.

“I will be making no further comment at this time pending a decision on potential High Court legal action.”

Mr Bryson, who authored the controversial speech and was not permitted to act as Alderman Patterson’s representative during the hearings, said legal action is already under way in the case.

He branded the councillor’s suspension “an assault on the democratic process and on free speech.”

“Ironically the complaint by Mr Attwood has given the issue more prominence and brought more attention to the comments made by Alderman Patterson,” he said.

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing, Crumlin Star officials and Cllr Attwood welcomed the sanction imposed on Alderman Patterson and called on her to issue a public apology for her comments.

The commissioner has said decisions about the payment of salary and allowances to Alderman Patterson are matters for Belfast City Council.

“Council will consider these issues upon receipt of official correspondence from the commissioner,” a spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said.