SDLP accuses Sinn Féin of trying to "limit speech" at Belfast City Hall

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The SDLP have accused Sinn Féin of attempting to “limit speech” in Belfast.

At the latest full monthly meeting of Belfast City Council, SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite levelled the assertion as elected representatives went to ratify a decision made at committee level to change the nature of council’s “Official Announcements.”

Official Announcements come at the beginning of full council meetings and include any announcements councillors wish to make that are not related to the official business of the committees. They can refer to a great range of statements from thoughts on current local or world affairs, to congratulations or condolences.

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The official announcements at the latest meeting included words from SDLP Councillor Paul Doherty on Casement Park, SDLP Councillor Donal Lyons condolences on the death of poet Gerry Dawe, Deputy Lord Mayor Andrew McCormick congratulating East Belfast Football Club on winning the amateur Premier Division, and Alliance Councillor Sam Nelson promoting World Bicycle Day.

The minutes for the Standards and Business Committee state: “In relation to the volume of Official Announcements being received during council meetings, Councillor (Ronan) McLaughlin requested that options be explored on how the purpose of Official Announcements could be better utilised.

“The committee agreed that a report be submitted to a future committee to outline options in relation to a potential new procedure for raising Official Announcements during council meetings.”

SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite said at the full council meeting: “I read with dismay the minutes from the meeting in relation to questions being raised around Official Announcements. And it comes as no surprise that there is a further attempt to try and limit speech in this chamber, certainly that is how it appears.

“Official Announcements are used in this place by councillors from all parties as an opportunity to congratulate people within the city, to thank members of staff for their hard work in relation to council projects, or major events. To recognise the contribution of people to the city, to pay tribute to people we have lost who have made a contribution to the city or to our individual neighbourhoods.

“It is frankly distasteful we are getting to a point where there is a suggestion of some curtailing of that.” He proposed the council did not have a report on changing official announcements. On a show of hands he lost the vote with six in favour and 48 against.

Sinn Féin Councillor Ronan McLaughlin, who successfully proposed the report, said: “I am not trying to stifle anyone talking, what I simply ask for is a report to come back and look at the options, to try and modernise how we do things. The SDLP maybe wants to stay in the past but we want to move this place forward a bit.”

He added: “Nobody thinks that sitting here for 45 minutes on Official Announcements is sometimes a good thing to do. I understand what the member is saying, that there are significant things that happen in the city, and I believe that they should still be recognised at the start of council. This is just an option paper.

“If the member wants to then engage with officers and try to change the option paper, he is within his rights to do so. I think it is a bit crass at this stage just to reject the report outlining future options.”

DUP Alderman Dean McCullough said: “The previous speaker is absolutely right, it is a report to look at the efficiency of the council and council business, and there are people who quite frankly are at times abusing the process under Official Announcements.

“We will not be at all attempting to prohibit anybody who has a legitimate announcement that falls in line with the business of this council. But some are being hijacked for political purposes and other causes.”

Alliance Councillor Michael Long said: “I share some of the reservation that Councillor de Faoite has, but I do not see any harm in any report looking at the options at this stage.

“For me it is an opportunity for people to laud and praise those who have done good things in the city, who may otherwise be ignored, so there is a definite role for this.”

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