At tonight’s monthly meeting of Lisburn City Council, Alderman Givan (DUP) proposed that the contribution of the Orange Order throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland be recognised by conveying the Freedom of Lisburn on the organisation. [I recorded a quick interview with Paul Givan after the council meeting ended.]
The freedom of the city is usually only given once per council term. Blind water skier Janet Gray, cardiologist Frank Pantridge (who pioneered the portable defibrillator), Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters, the RUC and the RIR have all been given the freedom of the city (or borough – before Lisburn was a city) in the past.
No councillor recorded a conflict of interest at the start of the council meeting.
Givan outlined the context for the DUP’s proposal, explaining that around 5000 groups use the 500 Orange halls across Ireland, supporting craft projects, music groups, and play grounds. Facilities are sought after in rural areas where there is no government funding for rural areas.
Givan also highlighted that individual lodges as well as districts carry out extensive fund raising that benefits all sections of the community. He saw the Orange Order as “part of the fabric of our community … as we try to build a shared community”.
Activities that the Orange Order is better known for – eg, the erection of arches, blocking of traffic, hiring of bands, fighting for religious freedoms – were not mentioned by Givan as he explained the context for his motion. (Speaking to the BBC outside the Council building, Alderman Givan said “This motion is absolutely nothing to do with getting the right to march in Lisburn”.)
He wanted the motion to be taken forwards “constructively” and “sensitively”.
Tonight’s motion proposed sending the suggestion to the council’s Corporate Services Committee where there would be an equality screening exercise before perhaps proceeding to a full Equality Impact Assessment.
The motion was proposed. Alliance Councillor Dornan indicated his wish to speak about the motion, though not to second it. A seconder was quickly taken – guaranteeing that the motion would proceed to committee (given the number of unionist councillors) before the Mayor Leathem returned to Dornan, pre-empting his remarks by claiming that he was about to “stifle debate” through his opposition.
Dornan [interviewed later] spoke about the need for the freedom of the city to be awarded to “exceptional” individuals and organisations. He acknowledged community use of Orange halls, but pointed to other organisations including churches which opened up their halls too, and praised the GAA’s contribution to the community.
I cannot see that the community service provided by the Orange Order is beyond that of those other organisation.
He listed three concerns with the Orange Order:
- Membership of the Orange Order is not open to Catholics and non-Christians. [Ed – not to open to women either.]
- Orange Order is not politically neutral.
- The stance taken by [some] members of the Orange Order regarding the non-attendance at Catholic funerals (and the disciplinary procedure used against Tom Elliott) was “at odds” with the general public.
He concluded that the effect of taking the motion any further would be “divisive”.
Two other councillors rose to speak. Councillor Carson (SF) said that there were “numerous sensitivities in this proposal” and that the motion had “potential for disharmony and discord”. He wanted to see the shared future Alderman Givan had referred to, but the Orange Order had to reform.
Councillor Nelson (Independent) directed a question at the council Chief Executive asking whether there was a conflict of interest that should prevent the nine councillors who are members of the Orange Order from debating or voting on the issue.
The Mayor answered the question instead, saying that advice had been taken – though didn’t indicate whether the advice was from council officers or party lawyers – and said that the proposal was of “no benefit to us as individual members”.
Granting the freedom of the city to an organisation like the Orange Order would normally involve a large ceremony, catering, and a public parade. It’s conceivable that council costs could be in the region of £50,000. Councillors who were members of the organisation, lobbying for freedom to be conveyed on their organisation, would be incurring a large cost on behalf of the local ratepayers to support their organisation.
Interviewed afterwards, Alderman Givan (who is not a member of the Orange Order) stated that there was no pecuniary interest to individual councillors who were members.
The vote was a show of hands. All the DUP and UUP councillors present voted in support of the motion to send the proposal to the Corporate Services committee for equality screening. Alliance, Sinn Fein and the single independent councillor voted against the motion.
All three of the SDLP councillors were curiously absent, prompting the question of whether they were avoiding making their mind up and going on record about this motion, or just all way on holiday during the scheduled monthly meeting of the full council.
Alderman Givan will be off Lord Bannside’s Christmas card list since the Independent Orange Order were not in line to get freedom of the city! And the Association of Loyal Orangewomen of Ireland may be miffed that they get to meet in the men’s halls, but don’t get any freedom.
Councillor Bell (SF) brought up the issue of the charity Race Against Multiple Sclerosis (RAMS) at the end of the meeting. Due to a flooded premises at the end of June, and prolonged wranglings over insurance, the charity have been out of action. While all councillors were happy to support raising the matter with the Health Minister, no one offered to investigate whether they could use an Orange hall!
Since Lisburn City Council forbid the public from using electronic devices during council meetings, none of this could be reported as it happened. And while the notice on each seat was reinforced by council staff with a verbal explanation to this blogger and a UTV journalist, it’s notable that other people in the public gallery (including a prominent ex-councillor’s son) were free to stab at their mobiles throughout council business and were not instructed or scolded.
None of the reports being noted by the councillors during tonight’s business were available to anyone who wasn’t a councillor, a council officer or an official member of the press sitting at their designated table. So the context of much of the debate and business was completely lost on anyone who chose to come along to watch. And while May’s council minutes are available on the Lisburn City Council website, albeit misclassified under the Economic Development committee, no minutes from the full monthly council meetings in March or April are available.
Not terribly accountable, and not very transparent.
Update – Mark (previously of this parish) points to the Northern Ireland Code of Local Government Conduct.
Part 2 / Section 22. If you have a pecuniary, or private or personal non-pecuniary, interest in a matter being considered by your council, you should exclude yourself from discussions and decisions on that matter (see also Part 3 of the code).
Part 3 / Section 27 You should also declare any significant private or personal non-pecuniary interest in a matter arising at a council meeting (including a committee or sub-committee meeting). An interest will be significant where you anticipate that a decision on the matter might reasonably be deemed to benefit or disadvantage yourself to a greater extent than other council constituents. Private or personal interest also extends to your membership of, or association with, any business, club, society, voluntary body or other organisation. [emphasis added]
Councillors who are members of the Orange Order stand to benefit in terms of a big party – and the right to march their sheep around the town – over their fellow councillors and some voters.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.