Last week one MLA put out a ludicrous press statement suggesting the situation in Newtownabbey surrounding a decision to ban a play on religious grounds demonstrated that we needed to get rid of all our Councillors…
Firstly, to state the obvious, no party will be running even 231 candidates, never mind 460 – so no party can possibly hope to replace the lot!
Secondly, the fact is that a significant proportion of Newtownabbey’s population actually agreed with the DUP’s and UUP Mayor’s stance. There remains a significant Christian Conservative vote in Northern Ireland – not dissimilar to the Conservative Republican vote in the United States. It cannot just be wished away; nor are all its supporters going to disappear conveniently before 22 May! We have to come to terms with the fact that the DUP holds a lot of influence because a lot of people agree with them, however unpalatable and outrageous its stances on some issues may be to others among us.
Thirdly, he had rather missed the point of the whole thing – which was that the decision was overturned.
It was overturned because of a strong groundswell of public opinion against the decision, yes. But it still had to be overturned in the chamber itself. There, the Alliance Party (5 Cllrs out of 25) led the way as the largest party in Newtownabbey united on the subject (the UUP also has 5 but was split). Its Councillors worked hard with others to secure a majority to overturn the decision taken by the DUP (who have 11, though in the event their own Deputy Mayor voted with Alliance).
Without that leadership by Councillors the decision would have stood, regardless of any public outcry. The media reflected this by interviewing the DUP (in favour of the decision) and Alliance (as the main force against it). Any objective observer would allocate praise to the Alliance Party team for leading the way politically on this and showing that Councillors can make the right calls under pressure.
Of course, the same MLA should have looked closer to home. In Lisburn just over a year ago a similar outrage occurred when the DUP (14 Cllrs out of 30) decided it would be a wonderful idea in a city which is 32% Catholic and has a significant immigrant population to award Freedom of the City to the exclusively Protestant Orange Order. Again there, the Alliance Party (3 Cllrs) was instrumental in drawing on public opinion and building a coalition in the chamber to oppose the decision. Needless to say, Mayoral invites and so on soon disappeared and the DUP shunned Alliance members for a while afterwards – all the more reason for giving due credit to the Alliance Councillors, who showed leadership on behalf of the whole city.
So it is simply untrue to say Councils need a clear-out. I do not agree with every decision they make, but the objective evidence is clear: in fact, when it comes to tackling fundamentalism and bigotry, what Councils need specifically is more Alliance members, who are then likely to have the numbers to make a real difference for all of us.