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3 July 2003 Edition

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No Catholic about the place

BY LAURA FRIEL


The Ulster Unionist Party's increasing abandonment of the Good Friday Agreement and its power sharing commitment is filtering down to local government level, with unionist dominated Lisburn Borough Council reverting to its old anti-Catholic agenda of sectarian exclusion.

Ulster Unionist Party councillors of Lisburn voted to have 'no Catholic about the place' by excluding all Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance Party members from council positions within the city at last week's AGM. The UUP connived with the DUP to ensure that unionists secured all positions.

In doing so, the UUP abandoned established local protocol and ignored their commitment to creating Lisburn as 'a city for all', a slogan that had figured large in the borough's successful campaign to gain city status a year ago. The UUP's actions "have set the council back years", said Sinn Féin Councillor Michael Ferguson.

Most notable among the many nationalist and Catholic councillors to suffer at the hands of the UUP and DUP pack was Sinn Féin's Michael Ferguson, who, as standing vice chair of environmental services, was poised to take the chair this year.

Sinn Féin's Paul Butler, whose length of service should have entitled him to a vice chair position, fell foul of UUP exclusion. Trevor Lunn of the Alliance Party, standing vice chair of corporate services, was also denied the position of chair.

On the other hand, with the help of the UUP, Cecil Calvert of the DUP, notorious for his anti-Catholic sentiments, secured the position of deputy mayor, with Billy Bell of the UUP taking the position of Lisburn mayor. Cecil Calvert is a member of Stoneyford Orange Lodge, where a loyalist death list detailing the personal details of nationalists, including members of Lisburn Council, was discovered.

While a few individual members of the UUP privately expressed personal regret to their nationalist colleagues, none felt able to resist what they described as a party "three line whip". But leader of the UUP council group Ivan Davis, a close associate of David Trimble's, who held the party whip within the Assembly, has disclaimed responsibility.

During a radio interview, Davis admitted that Catholics had been excluded from all council positions within the borough but claimed it was a 'group' decision. Challenged by Sinn Féin's Michael Ferguson, Davis rejected that his party's actions had been sectarian. "I grew up with Catholics," Davis told a stunned radio audience.

"The fact that the schism currently threatening to tear the UUP and David Trimble's leadership apart is being played out along sectarian lines will come as little surprise to northern nationalists," said Ferguson.

"David Trimble initially secured his leadership position within the UUP by supporting the Orange Order's Drumcree violent siege against the nationalist residents of Garvaghy Road," said Ferguson, "Jeffrey Donaldson has built his power base within the UUP by rejecting the power sharing arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement.

"Now, each faction within the UUP is attempting to become more hardline than the hardliners. The crisis is within unionism but nationalists are paying the price," said Ferguson.

But the Lisburn councillor is also critical of the SDLP. An attempt to introduce the d'Hondt system into local government practices in Lisburn Borough Council by Sinn Féin last year was scuppered by the SDLP.

"The local SDLP preferred their 'gentlemen's agreement' with the UUP," said Ferguson. "In past years, with the connivance of the UUP, the SDLP was able to secure more positions than Sinn Féin, despite their weaker electoral base. The nod and wink system suited the SDLP at the time."

The SDLP sought and tolerated discrepancies that allowed Alliance member Betty Campbell, in her second term of office, to secure the position of deputy mayor, despite the fact that Sinn Féin had three times as many votes as the Alliance Party. Peter O'Hagan of the SDLP became the mayor despite Sinn Féin having twice as many votes as the SDLP.

"The d'Hondt system would have ensured a more equable distribution of power within local government in Lisburn," said Ferguson," and it is a system which already operates within the Assembly and also within many councils, including Belfast.

"It would have decreased political acrimony and ensured electoral equity within the borough. It also would have prevented unionists playing the sectarian card whenever they feel under pressure."

Sinn Féin is currently seeking legal advice and exploring the possibility of challenging, through the Equality Commission, the unionist monopoly of power within the Lisburn borough.
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