06 January 2006

St Patrick’s Day event gets Council green light


Áine McEntee reports from the chamber of Belfast City Council on the historic decision by the city fathers to fund a celebration of the Patron Saint of Ireland in the nation’s second city

5 January 2006

At Belfast City Council’s monthly council meeting last night (Wednesday) there was one item head and shoulders above the rest on the agenda – St Patrick’s Day.
And during the course of the long-winded debate, two councillors in particular knocked unionist arguments against holding an event, right in the head.
Unionist concerns mainly centred around how many stewards would secure the event, how much of a role the PSNI would play and their outrage that Irish Tricolours might be held aloft in the crowds.
North Belfast SDLP councillor Alban Maginness labelled the arguments ‘threadbare’.
“All we’ve heard tonight is nit-picking about security arrangements,” he said.
“The security arrangements are adequate. They are the same as with every other public event in the city. These are merely scarcely concealed arguments. Threadbare, and all they do is underline unionist hostility in a public manner towards anything related to St Patrick.”
But the DUP’s Sammy Wilson branded the plans a ‘recipe for disaster’ and claimed the logistics of staging such an event had not been properly thought through.
Addressing this point, Alban Maginness harked back to the Stormont Assembly days when Sammy Wilson also opposed planning a St Patrick’s Day event.
“One thing about Sammy Wilson is that he’s consistent,” Alban Maginness retorted.
In the same argument Sinn Féin councillor for West Belfast, Fra McCann, brought up the issue of the council funding the cleanup of loyalist bonfires - many brandishing paramilitary shows of strength and burning pollutant rubber tyres.
Several months ago in the chamber a fully-fledged row erupted over the council’s support of bonfires and its plans to extend a pilot programme last year throughout the city this coming Eleventh Night.
Cllr McCann also pointed out there was no effort by DUP councillors to address the flying of paramilitary emblems on the Twelfth of July.
“A while ago we had a bonfire discussion and there was no mention by the DUP about flags, bunting, slogans, effigies, posters, paramilitary acts, gunfire or anything to do with removing them.”
His colleague Michael Browne said unionists had turned the whole matter of celebrating St Patrick’s Day into a ‘sectarian onslaught against nationalists’.
“The council has a decision here to make, to either begin the centenary year on a sour note or make it a successful year to remember,” Cllr Browne argued.
Crucially three Alliance Party councillors got up to speak on the matter. Mervyn Jones said the two main unionist parties were putting forward ‘spurious’ objections while former Lord Mayor, Tom Ekin, said it was vital that the council took a step forward in getting the show running.
“I’ve taken a good deal of interest in this matter over the last couple of years and I’ve noticed a sea change in their (Protestant people’s) attitudes.
“They want to take part in an all-inclusive family event on St Patrick’s Day.
“We’ve got to take a step forward. Let’s stop sitting in the rut we’ve built for ourselves. Any more stalling on St Patrick’s Day and we will set good relations back even further,” he said.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, Nelson McCausland and new kid on the block Christopher Stalford continued to bite on the bit about security.
“It’s an issue that’s been around for a long time,” Nelson McCausland said.
PUP leader David Ervine was absent for the vote.
DUP councillor Christopher Stalford said afterwards that had the PUP man been present, and voted no the votes would have been tied.
In such cases the Lord Mayor’s second casting vote decides, and with the DUP’s Wallace Browne at the helm, plans to fund the event would have been sent into oblivion another year.

Journalist:: Áine McEntee

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