An Armagh City councillor, who has landed in hot water following comments reportedly made during a fraught Council meeting on Monday night, has hit back.
Sinn Féin councillor Garath Keating has defended remarks he is reported to have made at Monday’s night’s Council committee meeting, describing an angry reaction to the same by a number of Unionist politicians as “contrived anger designed to try and deflect from the actual issue”.
Tempers flared during a tense debate on the issue of concession pricing for use of the Borough’s swimming pools.
Councillors were trying to reach agreement on a new policy that would harmonise concession pricing across Council’s pool facilities.
Currently, Armagh’s Orchard Leisure Centre provides 45-minute swim sessions free of charge to local disabled and unemployed service users whereas pricing in other legacy areas sets concession pricing for such users at 65% of full standard rate.
Councillors were discussing whether to harmonise the concession price in Armagh up to the same rate as the other areas, or harmonise the rate in the other areas downwards to match the position in Armagh.
Council officials had tabled a paper setting out the cost of extending the current Armagh provision for disabled and unemployed swimmers across the borough, as being in the region of £1,600.
The DUP’s Mark Baxter confirmed his party were concerned in relation to free swims for the unemployed and wanted more detail, which offering their full support on a concession for disabled swimmers.
However, tensions rose as the issue was forced to a vote on the matter.
At the conclusion of the vote councillor Keating’s proposal to extend the free swim initiative for disabled and unemployed users to other parts of the borough was narrowly defeated.
Keating reportedly shouted, in what has been described by a DUP spokesman as a scoffing tone, “all the Christians” while raising his hand in the direction of those voting against the proposal.
This allegedly prompted a flurry of rebuttals from Unionist representatives challenging that his remarks were in breach of the Council Code of Conduct, with one councillor seeking that the Council obtain legal advice in respect of the matter and councillor Keating’s remarks.
Councillor Keating, in response to comments made following the meeting, defended his remarks, responding with a written statement: “I was utterly appalled and shocked at the tone of some of the comments that had been made during the debate, particularly from a number of members who go to great lengths, at every possible opportunity, to highlight their strong Christian faith.
“My comment was purposed solely to draw attention to the fact that it was these same individuals who were now blocking a low cost initiative that could have a hugely positive impact for some of the most most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society.
“Council subsidise leisure facilities for everyone in this borough to the tune of £4 million, including initiatives already in place to provide free swimming to our under 4s and over 60s for example.
“For a relatively tiny fraction more (% 0.04) it could have provided free swimming to all persons in the borough with a disability or out of work, with a significant health and well-being contribution to those often marginalised members of our community.
“I found it incomprehensible that such an initiative was rejected considering some of the outlay which those same members are happy to approve when it suits them, such as the £1,000 each for the ceremonial gowns they occasionally wear.
“I apologised at the time to anyone who took offence at the remark, but continue to believe that the issue deserved to be highlighted.”