Lisburn City Council has used ratepayers money to pay for a meeting of the Unionist Forum in the Lagan Valley Island centre, cynically using the Council’s Good Relations programme as cover to enable them to finance an organisation established with the specific objectives of maximising the unionist vote, devising a joint PUL parades and flag-flying strategy and address issues relating to socio-economic deprivation, but only in protestant communities. The story is the front page lead in today’s Irish News.
The meeting was jointly requested by the UDA-aligned UPRG and the Unionist Forum and was introduced by UDA Leader, Jim McDonald, and addressed by the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP Leader, Mike Nesbitt, TUV Leader, Jim Allister and PUP Leader, Billy Hutchinson.
Lisburn Council has admitted in a reply to a Freedom of Information query by myself that they covered the full cost of the meeting, using their Good Relations budget. The Director of Leisure Services, James Rose, provided the following reason for agreeing to pay the costs of the meeting:
“The cost of the event was met through the Council’s Good Relations budget on the basis that the event encouraged sections of the local Unionist community to engage in facilitated discussion on a number of issues relevant to improving Good Relations, including with democratically elected representatives.”
The Council has confirmed that no equality impact assessment was carried out in regard to the decision to pay for the event.
This is not the first time Lisburn City Council has been in the spotlight for the actions of its elected representatives and council officers. The unionist-dominated council has steadfastly refused to introduce an inclusive power-sharing arrangement, with Sinn Fein yet to hold the office of Mayor in spite of being the largest nationalist party on council since 1997. Lisburn’s unionist majority also voted in recent years to donate land in the centre of the town so that a UDR memorial could be erected.
In 2008, the UUP Mayor of Lisburn, Ronnie Crawford, and senior council officials helped the then loyalist leader (and since convicted paedophile) Mark Harbinson fill in an application form for money for the controversial 11th Night beacon gathering in the centre of Stoneyford, securing £2,400 in a funding commitment from the Community Relations Council- money that was never released after it emerged that the Mayor lit the beacon with a poster of Sinn Fein MLA, Paul Butler atop the fire.
In an earlier thread, Mick cited a statement released outlining the rationale of the Unionist Forum, which clearly identifies it as a political body striving to advance a unionist cause and exclusively lobby on behalf of the protestant and unionist communities.
I have pasted the statement below:
The Unionist Forum will be convened by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and the leader of Ulster Unionist Party. For the first meeting, invitations will be extended to other unionist political parties, representatives and interested groups. The participants in the forum will be discussed at the first meeting.
The purpose of the Forum will be to seek to engage with the entire unionist community and seek to address issues of concern. It will seek to channel unionist efforts through political means. While participants in the forum will be limited, working groups may be established to provide a more extensive reach across the wider unionist community.
The forum will be a body through which unionists could meet to consider matters of interest and concern to the unionist community.
All participants will share the core values of support for the maintenance of the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism, commitment to a shared future and commitment to the successful operation of devolution in Northern Ireland.
The forum would not be a decision-making body but would act as a body within which a consensus might be built and implementation of any actions left to individual organisations. It would seek to engage positively with representatives from all sections of the Northern Ireland community.
The Forum will hold its initial meeting as soon as is practicable at Parliament Buildings, Stormont.
The agenda items, in no particular order, for the first meeting may include matters such as;
· A strategy for addressing the Flags issue,
· Measures to increase voter registration and turnout in unionist areas,
· Strengthening British cultural identity in Northern Ireland,
· Proposals to address problems surrounding parading,
· Proposals to tackle deprivation and educational underachievement in the unionist community,
· Broader political and economic matters,
· Steps to increase capacity building in unionist areas.
Given the transparently political and sectarian agenda being pursued by the Unionist Forum, ratepayers are entitled to ask why a council would use their money, under the cynical guise of good relations, to cover the cost of the meeting?