Unionist-controlled Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has been labelled “one-sided” for its support of the armed services and the Royal family.
SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan’s claims – in response to a DUP motion to confer the new council’s first honorary freedom of the borough on B Squadron North Irish Horse Scottish and Irish Yeomanry - were vehemently denied by unionist members.
The motion, submitted by Mayor Cllr Billy Ashe, was formally presented by his DUP colleague, Larne councillor Gordon Lyons, at a full council meeting in The Braid on July 6.
Cllr Lyons said the regiment was worthy recognition for its “long and distinguished history”.
The North Irish had fought in both world wars, seeing action at the Somme and Ypres and helping to break the Hitler Line.
“They were involved in major allied victories and 229 men gave their lives in the service of their country,” stated Cllr Lyons. “To confer the honorary freedom recognises the dedication of the regiment in that time and the sacrifice of those who gave their lives.
“In recent years, personnel have been deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. We recognise the service of those who fought in the Second World War and who played a role in liberating Europe and brought an end to the days of Naziism. Many local people are members of B Squadron or have family who were members of B Squadron.”
TUV Deputy Mayor Timothy Gaston, seconding, said: “This is a very timely motion, just as we have had the commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the Hitler Line and the borough has celebrated in support of Armed Forces Day.”
However, Sinn Fein’s Patrice Hardy labelled it “divisive.” She stated: “This is a new council and it is important that it is seen to represent all its citizens from the outset in its decisions, symbolic or otherwise. The individuals or groups that it chooses to honour should, in my view, be worthy of that praise, but also be recognised and thought worthy of that praise by all sections of the borough. It should be obvious that a regiment of the British Army, given its history in Ireland, receiving an honour from this council is going to be seen as divisive.”
Cllr Hardy proposed an amendment that the council set up a sub-committee to discuss the freedom proposal, agree criteria and report back to council before any decision was made.
Backing the amendment, Cllr O’Loan added: “The parties must step carefully and think of the reaction across council and the community. I have heard nothing that is a convincing argument of the benefit of conferring this for Mid and East Antrim.”
He added: “We need to have real concerns regarding the civic function of this council and how it is being exercised.”
Cllr O’Loan said: “The Somme services, Armed Forces Day, sending teams to the Somme and Gallipoli, repeated congratulations to members of the Royal family, items under consideration at working groups: it is clear that this council is already being one-sided and taking on a colour that is strongly pro-unionist in character.
“We need to pursue our objectives and equality obligations and demonstrate that we a council for everyone, and we are not moving in that direction.
“The operation of the Army over the past 40 years has been controversial. It is a very sensitive issue and we need to consider the context, I don’t believe this is the moment to do this.”
Responding to Cllr Hardy, Cllr Lyons argued: “I don’t think we will ever get a proposal that every single person in the borough will agree. People from all backgrounds and all religions and none served in our armed forces. That Cllr Hardy enjoys her freedom is a direct result of the service and dedication of the armed forces, and she can smirk at that, but it’s the truth.”
Addressing concerns over cost, Cllr Lyons said he “would not be taking lessons from Sinn Fein on the sound use of public funds”.
He said in reply to cllr O’Loan that the decision would “not be forced on anyone” but would be “made on the basis of a democratic vote.
“I make no apology for wanting to recognise the work of our armed forces and the work of the Royal family,” he added.
“We are in breach of equality laws if we treat one section of the community in a different way, but we are not. Anyone can bring a proposal. Council is not treating anyone else differently regarding religion.”
Cllr Hardy’s amendment was defeated, with 27 councillors voting against, four voting for, with three abstentions and one member not voting.
The original proposal was carried 28-4, with two abstentions.
MEA council comprises 32 pro-Union members, three Sinn Fein, one SDLP, three Alliance and two independents.