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Unionist council leaders say business at confidential meetings must stay confidential

"I think we really need to get a handle on this and members need to reflect on what they are leaking out to press and social media.”

The party group leaders of both unionist parties on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council have urged their fellow elected representatives to keep the contents of confidential meetings confidential.

UUP group leader Alderman Jim Speers was critical of those he said decided to reveal the contents of a meeting held behind closed doors on Tuesday, September 20.

Speaking at the monthly meeting a week later, Alderman Speers expressed concern that he got a “fairly verbatim report” of what he said in the private meeting from someone who was not there.

“I am just posing the question. I am not making any allegations or pointing the finger at individuals,” said Alderman Speers.

“I believe this is something that does need to be investigated, confidential meetings are meant to be just that and apparently that has been a practice that has not been implemented in full in recent times.

“I would ask that officers make some enquiries as to how these things are getting out and who has got it. I know it happened that night and it was out there in detail.

“In my opinion we talk about public representatives having honour but what has happened goes contrary to that view.”

DUP group leader, Alderman Mark Baxter described Alderman Speers’ comments as “wise words” and said council is in a “very unfortunate position” with comments leaking out from confidential meetings.

“When there is a confidential meeting and things are leaked out as the meeting is taking place, we are in a very unfortunate position,” said Alderman Baxter.

“It puts officers, who maybe have sensitive information to share in meetings going forward, in an uncomfortable position. When they have information they want to give to councillors they feel they cannot do it as they will see it in news channels in a short space of time.

“It is confidential for a reason. Some of it, I wonder why it is in confidential but that is the decision officers have taken.

“When sensitive information gets into the public domain it can cause council damage and there are legal issues that can arise. I think we really need to get a handle on this and members need to reflect on what they are leaking out to press and social media.”

He continued by highlighting a statement issued by two councillors immediately following the confidential meeting in question.

“There are two members in the chamber tonight who put out a statement about what happened in the confidential meeting Alderman Speers referred to before officers had the chance to talk to trade unions.

“It was out before officers and the chief executive had a chance to put out a statement to the public. They know who they are and that could have caused issues with the unions at the time over those sensitive discussions.”

Alderman Baxter noted an election is on the horizon and hypothesised that may be the reason for the leaks. However, he warned those involved such actions are unlikely to result in an increase in votes.

“Parties and individual members need to reflect on those things,” he said. “This is supposed to be grown up politics in here, we all know there is an election coming in May, that may be but that is way off.

“To think leaking out a statement before council business is even completed is going to garner extra votes in May is politically immature in the extreme.

“Maybe we should have more training on the councillors’ code of conduct. Councillors are not above that and the code of conduct is clear. There is one there and members answer for themselves.

“It is a very dangerous position to be in, its very churlish as well.”

Bringing the discussion to a close, council’s Lord Mayor Paul Greenfield said he agreed “with the sentiments” of both members and confirmed officers would “look into Alderman Speers’ request”.

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