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23 October 1997 Edition

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Unionists resurrect gerrymandering

Secret deal excludes Sinn Féin in Belfast

By Mick Naughton.

A secret deal hatched by unionists on Belfast City Council has been used to block the appointment of Sinn Féin councillors to outside bodies.

The deal was struck between the Ulster Unionists, Democratic Unionists and the unionist Alliance party after last May's council elections.

``It is an unwelcome return to the politics of exclusion carried on by the unionists over decades,'' said councillor Mick Conlon who only last month was rejected as the Sinn Féin nominee for the board of the prestigious Laganside.

Also during September's council meeting Sinn Fein councillors were kept off Belfast's Harbour Board, the Rent Assessment Panel, the University of Ulster and Groundwork, a jobs creation body.

Now the party is preparing to go to court and is consulting a solicitor after a meeting on Friday 17 October with British minister with responsibility for local government, Lord Dubbs. Dubbs said he wouldn't interfere in the internal affairs of the council.

At the meeting, attended by all Belfast councillors, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey raised the issue of discrimination against the party and an ill-at-ease Dubbs said that ``any change in local government will only come about at the far side of the talks''.

Leader of the Sinn Féin group on the council Tom Hartley declared, ``unionists are opposed to equality and are unable to come to terms with the political realities of Belfast City where Sinn Féin has the largest first preference vote.''

The party has also written to the outside bodies involved urging them to deal with what is blatant discrimination.

The deal guarantees committee chairs for every party except Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile leader of the UUP council group Fred Cobain confirmed the document was one of several brokered against Sinn Féin and said he would make ``no apology for that''.

Mervyn Jones, Alliance group leader, confirmed his party had been in discussion with the UUP and that Alliance was ``not prepared to support Sinn Féin at the present time''.

Hartley said, ``Unionists would do well to remember that previous attempts to exclude Sinn Féin failed. They also need to understand that there is no going back to the days of marginalisation and exclusion. Unionists would serve the interests of the people of this city better, including their own electorate, if they got on with the business of running the Council along with Sinn Fein and the other representatives in a democratic fashion.''

Mo Mowlam is expected to face a Sinn Féin protest when she addresses Belfast City Council this Friday

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