12 February 2004 Edition

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SDLP anti-racism motion divides City Hall

Exactly what are the SDLP doing in Belfast City Council?

In a night of political one-upmanship on Monday last, the party chose to put forward a motion which would see the Council unite to condemn racism, but did so in terminology that no other party could endorse.

As a result, at a time when racially motivated attacks are on the increase throughout the North, the SDLP has managed to ensure that Belfast City Council appears divided on the issue.

The four-paragraph motion, which was put before the Council last week, managed to alienate every other party in City Hall and ended with the SDLP walking out of Council chambers in a huff.

Problems with the motion began as soon as SDLP Councillor Pat McCarthy stood to read it to the Council. While the document called for the condemnation of racist attacks, it also stated that, "the Council notes the view of the PSNI that these attacks are the works of elements of loyalist paramilitarism".

Next came the sentence: "The Council calls upon the PSNI and DPPs (District Police Partnerships) to devise, implement and monitor an effective strategy to protect members of ethnic communities living in Belfast."

Naturally, Sinn Féin had "deep problems" — particularly with the reference to supporting the PSNI and District Policing Partnerships. The party pointed out that the issue of racism was broader than any PSNI remit and added that the motion also contained a glaring omission in that it made no reference to institutionalised racism.

However, Sinn Féin Councillor Eoin Ó Broin stepped into the breach, saying that despite the offending references, his party was not prepared to turn the issue of racism into a "political football". Instead, said Ó Broin, Sinn Féin was prepared to support the motion, providing everyone else agreed.

But then unionists erupted, labeling the motion "sectarian" and claiming that its wording singled out their entire community by implying that all sections of unionism and loyalism were solely responsible for the majority of racial attacks.

After an hour of heated debate, Sinn Féin suggested that, as this was a crucial issue, it might be preferable to defer the motion until a unanimous agreement could be reached by the entire Council. An anxious Belfast Mayor, Martin Morgan, agreed and announced a ten-minute adjornment, during which all the parties got together to work out a unanimous consensus.

The newly-revised motion now had the full agreement of all the parties. It condemned all racist attacks — no matter what their origin — institutionalised racism, and called for the support of ethnic community organisations. It also called on "all relevent agencies" to combat racism in all its forms.

But just as the Council reconvened, SDLP councillors had a tete-a-tete and suddenly, to everyone's astonishment, Pat McCarthy stood to proclaim, "in light of the fact that Belfast City Council cannot agree on a motion condemning racist attacks, I am withdrawing my motion".

This sparked cries of outrage around the chamber, and the SDLP responded by storming out of the meeting.

"What sort of message does this send out to ethnic communities living in Belfast?" asked an amazed Ó Broin, adding that the SDLP's refusal to reach a compromise was "crazy".

Whatever altruistic breakthrough the SDLP might have originally hoped to achieve, its own narrow-minded political choices have effectively prevented Belfast City Council from presenting a united front against racism — at least for now.

But in the meantime, at a recent meeting of the Good Relations Steering Committee of Belfast Council, which took place after the SDLP fiasco, Sinn Féin and the Alliance parties drafted a new motion.

The proposal, which basically details what all the parties had agreed on before the SLDP unceremoniously pulled the plug, will be put before the Policy and Resources Committee for approval before the end of the month.

It is hoped that this motion will finally receive the endorsement of the full council when it is presented in March.

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