FIREWORKS were the order of the day at Armagh Council this week after nationalists and unionists locked horns over a proposal to stage a St Patrick’s Day parade in the city on a Sunday.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP weighed in on the same side to win a vote that dictates next year’s parade, the highlight of a 10-day St Patrick’s Festival, will go ahead on March 17.
The Ulster Unionists and the DUP – backed by Independent Unionist Paul Berry – branded it a bad day for cross-community relations, both within the council chamber and across Armagh as a whole.
The meeting was not running short on drama and, a short time after securing the Sunday parade outing, the SDLP sided with the unionists in agreeing colours, design and costs of new bunting to mark the festival should come back for further consideration.
SDLP Lord Mayor Sharon Haughey was forced to call the meeting to order on no less than three occasions, as councillors went out of their way to make their voices heard.
At Monday night’s full City Council sitting at the Palace, it was Sinn Fein’s Cathy Rafferty who brought forward the proposal calling for the parade to take place on the Sunday.
But the Ulster Unionists, DUP and the sole independent on council all warned that the Protestant community would be alienated from what should be seen as a cross-community, all-inclusive event.
They insisted the parade take place on the Bank Holiday Monday – March 18 – in order to allow the unionist and Protestant traditions, for whom Sunday is seen as a day of worship, to participate. After all, it was pointed out it was a holiday and people would be off work.
But Sinn Fein demanded the parade take place on the actual Saint’s Day, which is celebrated the world over on March 17, pointing out too that not everyone got that particular holiday. The SDLP, meanwhile, said an ecumenical service – also held on the Sunday – would allow all communities to participate and all churches to get involved.
An amended motion – calling on the parade to be held a day after St Patrick’s Day on Bank Holiday Monday – was defeated on the casting vote of the Lord Mayor.
Sein Fein Councillor Rafferty then called for another proposal – brought forward at an earlier committee – to proceed. With a 10-day celebration of St Patrick planned, she spoke of the need for new bunting to distinguish Armagh and make it stand out.
There were conflicting opinions, however, over the colour of the bunting, how much it might cost and whether or not it actually needed to be replaced!
Sinn Fein said the bunting was between 12 and 14 years old and looked horrible, pointing out that the council had actually spent £30,000 on ferrying consultants over from England to tell them what they already knew – St Patrick’s Day is a big selling point!
When challenged to make a decision on pressing ahead on the bunting issue, rather than putting it off to another day, yet a further show of hands was required, with Sinn Fein defeated on this occasion by 15 votes to six when the SDLP backed the unionist parties’ line.