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Council plans to celebrate NI centenary branded embarrassing as DUP say budget should be doubled

Tempers flared during an Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council committee meeting as council officers were told they should be “embarrassed” at the contents of a report on the celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary.

The remark was made by DUP Alderman Stephen Moutray during a discussion of Council’s plans to mark the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland at a meeting of Council’s economic development and regeneration committee.

The paper on the matter presented to members included a draft programme outline and recommended a budget allocation of £60,000 for the commemorations.

However, DUP group leader, Councillor Mark Baxter told the meeting he was “disappointed” in the report and upon reading it, had to check if he had missed meetings of the working group discussing this matter.

“This paper has come back totally metamorphosed from what was discussed at the working group,” said Cllr Baxter.

“Where is any information about community grants? Where is the mention of the fireworks display and where is the mention of any legacy projects?

“We had agreed that this should be about a celebration of local figures, yet there is no mention of Lord Craigavon in the report.

“To me, what is contained in this report does not convey the mood of the meeting.”

Cllr Baxter also made clear he was unhappy with the proposal to allocate £60,000 to the commemorations.

“Put it up to £120,000, it is key that we get the community involved,” said Cllr Baxter.

“At the last meeting of the working group, there was no agreement on the budget and we agreed to discuss it here. Now it seems officers have simply decided that is what we will be spending.

“I brought the motion calling for discussions on these celebrations to the Council in March 2019 and said time was of the essence as we needed to have the programme ready to go for January 1, 2021.

“It will soon be December 2020 and no budget has been agreed.”

Cllr Baxter proposed that rather than accept the report’s recommendations, that the working group meet again and officers draw up a new report that “reflects what members actually said in the working group”.

Council’s head of tourism, arts and culture, Brian Johnston, said he was sorry if members felt previous discussion were not “articulated” in the report.

His team’s efforts were praised by committee Chair, Alliance Party councillor Brian Pope who said they had “worked hard on the programme”.

Alderman Ian Burns seconded Councillor Baxter’s proposal and said he was disappointed that some of the great ideas mentioned in the working group were not present in the report.

“To say I am disappointed is an understatement, the whole workshop was a positive experience but this report is totally unreflective of what was discussed,” said the Ulster Unionist representative.

“Reading this, I was beginning to think I had missed a working group meeting when in fact, I had not missed any.

“We need to get this back to the working group to try and sort it out.”

Sinn Fein group leader, Councillor Liam Mackle said he was of the view the report did reflect the discussions held in the working group.

He said: “To my mind the report is reflective of the discussions. Obviously it will not include every madcap idea discussed but I do think it is fairly reflective of what was discussed.”

Independent councillor, Paul Berry, said he was shocked by the contents of the report and was happy to support Cllr Baxter’s proposal.

“I will hold my tongue for now but I am disappointed with this to say the least,” said Cllr Berry.

“This should be a celebration of the ABC area, what we are about and what we have come through over the past 100 years.

“I do have to wonder why we bother sitting in working group meetings.”

SDLP group leader, Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon then asked if Unionist councillors were unhappy with the report as it includes the term “Gaelic” and said he agreed with Councillor Mackle.

Councillor O’Hanlon also advised that now is not the time to be seeking more money for celebratory events when local businesses are fighting for survival.

“People need to realise what is going on out there,” said Cllr O’Hanlon. “I would ask everyone in this meeting to reflect on their priorities.

“What is on the paper is a reasonable programme of events and I think we need to be really reflective of the community and what is going on out there.”

Alderman Stephen Moutray said he disagreed with Councillors O’Hanlon and Mackle and only had to look at the actions of their parties in Derry City and Strabane District Council to understand their approach to this commemoration.

“We are the second biggest council area in Northern Ireland and there is a lot to be proud of over the last 100 years,” he said.

“I really think the officers should be embarrassed by this report. It does not reflect what happened in the meeting and I support Cllr Baxter’s proposal entirely.”

At this point, Council’s strategic director of place, Olga Murtagh, told members that any decision on budgets will need to be taken with the estimates process, which is currently ongoing, in mind.

Alderman Sydney Anderson said he is “really concerned” to hear that discussion in a working group are not accurately reflected in a report: “A difference of opinion is fine but if these ideas have been discussed I would expect to see that brought forward so that we could have a view on it.

“This is a centenary we are taking about and it deserves to be celebrated.

“I am deeply disappointed that as I read this report, I can’t see much to actually do with celebrating 100 years of Northern Ireland.”

Sinn Fein councillor Catherine Nelson said she was not surprised members had made these comments while the “cameras are rolling” describing the whole thing as a “stunt”.

“It is not something many people I represent would want to celebrate,” said Cllr Nelson. “The paper presents a measured programme and would have the support of our party.

“We acknowledge that there are people in our borough who would want to mark the centenary.

“To be honest, I am embarrassed this is taking place in the middle of this committee meeting and it is quite clear some members are simply trying to steal headlines.”

Bringing the debate to a close Cllr Baxter said he was disappointed in Cllr Nelson’s comments and reminded the chamber the commemorations have been equality screened.

“The comment about the cameras rolling is a nonsense,” said Cllr Baxter. “This is about how we want to see Northern Ireland celebrated.

“The last meeting of the working group was, to my mind, a positive one. The only thing we could not agree on was a budget.

“We supported the idea that we would bring that decision to committee but for whatever reason, officers took it away and came back with the £60,000 figure.

“The celebrations outlined within that budget are not up to scratch for the celebration of a centenary. It is about celebrating what is great about this country over the last 100 years.

“It is a positive thing and there is not one event, that everyone could not come out and support should they so wish.”

Cllr Baxter than called for a recorded vote on his proposal.

Aldermen Anderson, Burns, Moutray and Speers voted in favour of the proposal as did councillors Baxter, Berry, Greenfield, Macauley, McIlwrath, Nicholson and Kyle Savage.

Councillors Duffy, Haughey, Keating, Mackle, McNeill, Catherine Nelson, O’Hanlon and Pope voted against the proposal.

With 11 members in favour of the proposal and 8 against it, the working group will meet again and a new report on the matter will be brought to December’s committee meeting.

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