There was no sign of agreement on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council at a special meeting to discuss a contentious decision that has changed the make-up of a confidential council grouping.
In June, it was revealed the DUP backed a Sinn Féin proposal to remove parties with only one seat on the council and independents, from the confidential forum. This decision means the SDLP, TUV and Alderman Paul Berry no longer have a voice on the forum.
Currently Sinn Féin has 15 seats on ABC Council, the DUP has 13, the UUP has six and the Alliance Party has four. The SDLP, TUV and Ald Berry have one each. The party leaders’ forum is now made up of council’s Lord Mayor, the Alliance Party’s group leader, the DUP’s group leader, Sinn Féin’s group leader and the UUP’s group leader.
The public special meeting to discuss this change was held on Wednesday, July 19 and as it began, UUP group leader, Alderman Ian Burns said he could not understand why the change was required.
“It is called the party leaders’ forum but the Lord Mayor sits on it and they are not a party leader. This has been a sounding board, it does not make decisions so I can’t understand why these three councillors cannot take part,” he said.
“The claim was made that it was about saving money, but the money has since been redistributed. We wanted to hold this meeting to find out exactly why these three councillors are going to be excluded after all these years.”
DUP group leader Alderman Mark Baxter reminded the chamber the decision to hold the original discussion in confidential business was taken by council officers before welcoming that it is now being discussed publicly.
“The leaks to the press and social media were very selective and there is a lot of misinformation circulating,” he said. “This forum has been hyped up to be something it is not, I have seen an SDLP statement claiming everything happens in this meeting, it doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t want that responsibility, if the meeting ever got that status we would not take part in it.”
TUV Councillor Keith Ratcliffe said he was pleased “this issue is at last being dealt with in an open way” and reiterated his stance that it has never been about money.
“Myself and other members had offered to forgo payment but this was rejected,” he said.
“Sinn Féin felt there were too many unionists on the forum and as a bonus saw the opportunity to stick the knife into the SDLP. At the last meeting they brought forward a proposal to gerrymander the party leaders’ forum.
“Some have asked why I should be on the forum as the sole TUV councillor on council. I was elected on a party manifesto and thousands of people voted for my party.
“We should be seeking to be as inclusive as possible. This move is anti-democratic and it is wrong.”
Alliance Party Councillor Peter Lavery told the chamber he would not be getting into an “inter-unionist slagging match” but described the decision to exclude these members as a “blatant carve up between the DUP and Sinn Féin”.
“It was a power grab aimed at stymieing debate and reducing the ability of others to hold the two largest parties to account,” he said.
“Alliance, while unaffected by this decision, felt it was important to stand up for maximum transparency, openness, diversity and inclusion. This is clear evidence yet again of DUP and Sinn Fein acting to protect party political interest, rather than working in the interest of the entire community.”
Telling the chamber she felt the meeting was “disingenuous” Sinn Fein group leader, Councillor Catherine Nelson accused Cllr Ratcliffe of “completely fabricating” her party’s stance and said she hoped tonight would be a “learning curve” for him.
“The forum is used to discuss key issues, that is right, it is a sounding board, information is shared through it, there are no votes and nothing is achieved through this forum without consensus,” said Cllr Nelson
“Parties that are given a sufficient mandate are represented on this forum i.e. those that lead a group, it is in the name.
“The chief executive, Roger Wilson, has also agreed that he will keep all representatives informed of issues that are discussed during these meetings in the interest of openness and transparency.”
Ald Berry said he welcomed the fact all parties are now speaking about this issue and called for all concerned to find an agreeable way forward.
“This is probably the first night all parties have put their view on record and that is welcome as the start of the process,” he said.
“Cllr Nelson has stated here tonight that the chief executive and his officers can pass on what was agreed and discussed but that creates duplication. For me, the question is: what is the big issue with three other members on the forum?”
Cllr Lavery asked the chief executive to clarify what the forum is called, noting he has been invited to a meeting to discuss changing its name from ‘party leaders’ forum’ to ‘party group leaders’ forum’.
“This change would reflect the decision taken by Sinn Féin and its good friends in the DUP to exclude minority voices,” noted Cllr Lavery
Mr Wilson confirmed the name of the forum is currently the “party leaders forum” before Ald Baxter described this point as “dancing on the head of a pin”.
SDLP Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon said the forum had always been about “inclusion, fairness and good governance” and urged the chamber to reconsider its stance.
“If there are key issues being discussed why are they excluding members from the discussion?” he asked. “I would ask people to take the opportunity to reconsider their stance, it was not broke and does not need fixed. It has worked really well from the start.”