Northern Bank looms large over debate

Aine McEntee reports from Belfast City Council

It was a fiery exchange at Belfast City Council’s monthly meeting on Tuesday and when the blame for carrying out the Northern Bank robbery came up in the discussion, there were fireworks.

Mayhem erupted over the robbery and when the Democratic Unionist Party said it was clear that everyone knew the IRA had carried out the robbery, and that Sinn Féin knew who did it and they were giving succour to the robbers, the anger from the Sinn Féin benches was palpable.

The DUP’s favourite catchphrase, ‘Sinn Féin/IRA’, was used a million times and the debate turned into a Sinn Féin-bashing exercise with most of the chamber’s 43 councillors flexing their vocal chords at some stage.

Some of the most vociferous anti-Sinn Féin remarks came from the SDLP.
That Alban Maginness and Martin Morgan were “going for the jugular” because an election is around the corner was hinted at by unionists, but was questionable as Morgan is standing down.

Even the less controversial issues debated – city rates and the d’Hondt system of voting – had the chamber up in arms against Sinn Féin.

As the Chief Executive of Belfast City Council, Peter McNaney asserted after Tuesday night’s meeting, it seemed as though the chamber had been transported back to the bad old days when SF and the DUP vehemently crossed swords and the chamber was a byword for rancour.

Peter McNaney has worked for Belfast City Council for 20 years and the atmosphere in the chamber hadn’t been like that in a long time, he said.

Of course, what really lit the fuse was the £26.5 million robbery of the Northern Bank.

A motion carefully penned by DUP Pottinger Councillor Sammy Wilson on the robbery was up for discussion at the very end of the Council meeting.

It called on the Council to condemn the robbery and the suffering the gang caused to hostages held during the raid. It also called on “anyone who has information which could help apprehend the perpetrators to contact the PSNI immediately”.

While launching the motion in the chamber, however, the East Belfast councillor launched into a lengthy invective against Sinn Féin which ranged from the murder of Jean McConville, the killing of Garda Jerry McCabe and the recent riots in the Markets area of Belfast following the death of Robert McCartney.

“You only have to look at their [Sinn Féin] past denials and record. We are publicly entitled to question the denial of Sinn Féin about this embarrassing issue. There is nothing to stop Sinn Féin from supporting this motion,” he said.

As new boy on the block, Oldpark councillor David Kennedy pointed out, the DUP had constructed the motion carefully on the robbery as to include a proposal to assist the PSNI. Councillor Michael Browne added there was no question of Sinn Féin condemning the robbery but it was the allegation that his party was somehow connected that was the problem.

Sinn Féin councillor Gerard O’Neill also pointed out that there had been no talk about the loyalist feud from the Council or motions originating from unionist benches condemning loyalist criminality.

“You ask why nationalists are angry? I’ll tell you why, because they are being connected to the robbery,” Councillor O’Neill said.

“We, as their elected representatives are being blamed on it by Hugh Orde. Where is the evidence? All of this is based on unfounded allegations and wild accusations. Nationalist areas are coming under attack from PSNI armed members for no reason. Why would we support them?”

The debate raged for at least an hour and in the end after a recorded vote 20 councillors voted to support Councillor Wilson’s motion while 13 voted against.

The debate on the Council’s rate led to further argument. Sinn Féin argued for keeping the rate at 8.1 per cent while the DUP called for it to be lowered to 7 per cent. The Alliance and SDLP wanted to call it at 7.5 per cent and UUP at 7.18 per cent.

Falls Sinn Féin councillor Fra McCann argued that if the figure was dropped services provided by the Council would undoubtedly become a casualty.

And as the PUP veteran Hugh Smyth pointed out, the reason the chamber was having the debate was because of a previous DUP/UUP policy of zero rate or 2.5 per cent.

“It’s catch up time now,” he said. “The treasurer warned us years ago about implementing a nil increase or a lowly 2.5 per cent but we didn’t listen. Now it’s all coming against us. It’s become a political point-scoring game now and I think we should take it back.”

Which the Council duly decided to do and which they must decide upon before February 15.

The d’Hondt system came up for discussion next and UUP councillor Bob Stoker wanted the minute approving the system of voting in the Lord Mayor, Deputy Lord Mayor and High Sheriff through the d’Hondt system rejected.

By a slim margin of 22 to 21 this was passed by the chamber and it appears now that any councillor who wants the position must persuade the other parties to back him.

The ever-thorny issue of St Patrick’s Day cropped up again through Bob Stoker. He wanted the issue taken back and this was approved despite the Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, Tom Hartley insisting that there wasn’t time to debate the matter again.

The Falls Road Leisure Centre is nearing completion and Councillor Fra McCann asked the chamber to approved the erection of Irish-English signs in the area.

“Irish is an indigenous language and it is also a minority language which the Council should support,” Fra McCann said. “Bi-lingual signs should be put up and, in fact, Foras Na Gaeilge could assist the Council with this.”

The SDLP’s Pat Convery said he would be against it, as it would delay the opening.

And when it was put to the vote the numbers were tied and the casting vote of the Lord Mayor Tom Ekin meant Fra McCann’s proposal was rejected.

Journalist:: Áine McEntee

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