The Sinn Féin group on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council withdrew from this afternoon’s special council meeting following the decision to discuss business in public session.
The meeting was originally set to take place behind closed doors and deal with the impact industrial action by members of Unite the Union will have on council’s services.
However, when the Lord Mayor, Alderman Glenn Barr sought a proposer and seconder to move the meeting away from the public’s gaze, Councillor Darryn Causby said his party would not support doing so and proposed the meeting continue in public.
His proposal was eventually supported by 18 members in the chamber and opposed by 11. Following this decision, Sinn Féin group leader, Councillor Liam Mackle told the chamber his party colleagues would be taking no further part in the meeting.
Setting out his proposal to continue the meeting in public, Councillor Causby said he and his DUP party colleagues believed some of the items up for discussion should be discussed in public.
“There are some issues I do accept, that we do need to discuss confidentially but there are items that should absolutely be discussed in public and therefore our party will not be voting to go into confidential business,” he said.
“I would propose the meeting continues in open session until we reach such items on the agenda that are of a confidential nature.”
The proposal was seconded by his party colleague, Alderman Stephen Moutray who said the strike will impact on the borough’s ratepayers and claimed they need to be informed of what the outcomes will be.
On advice from council’s solicitor, the Lord Mayor said he was of the view the conversation should take place in confidential business as information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person, information in connection to labour relations matter and information pertaining to legal professional privilege could be discussed.
At this point the council’s solicitor explained it depended on the practicalities and the logistics of the issues discussed.
“If the discussion does not have clear parameters and it goes into the application of the procurement handbook and the risks associated with that or discussion about the industrial action, if it can’t be clearly delineated it may be very difficult,” said the solicitor.
“This could result in having to go in and out of confidential business so from a practical aspect, if you are going to be discussing those issues, my advice would be it would be more prudent and cleaner to do it in confidential session.”
With Councillor Causby’s proposal on the floor, Councillor Mackle said he would oppose it and so the proposal was put to a vote.
“To me the bit that is vitally important and I would caution members going against is the very straight legal advice we have obtained,” said Councillor Mackle.
“Information about service delivery can all be delivered to the public via our communications department and it will be.”
UUP group leader, Alderman Jim Speers said he “found it difficult” to understand how, if the meeting went in and out of confidential business, it could be run without issue.
“I have no issue with the matter being in public but when you get legal opinion I am of the belief it is wise to follow it,” he said.
SDLP group leader, Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon said he was of the opinion this should be held in the “open forum” to allow residents to hear the discussion and reminded the chamber “it is important our staff see we respect them and value their contribution”.
However, he went onto say he would accept the legal opinion to discuss the matter in confidential.
A vote on Councillor Causby’s proposal was then taken with 18 votes in favour of the proposal and 11 votes against.
Following the declaration of the result, Councillor Mackle announced Sinn Féin councillors would be withdrawing from the meeting.
“A vote has been taken contrary to the very clear legal advice which I believe will place members in breach of the code of conduct,” he said.
“We very much support our staff and their right to strike for fair pay and very much oppose any possibility of employing private contractors to breach the strike and will withdraw from the meeting to go along with the very clear legal advice.”