FIERY arguments took place during Thursday night's Belfast City Council monthly meeting which saw raised voices and disagreements over a range of issues from how to distribute fuel vouchers, to tackling the climate emergency. It also saw a well-known Councillor stand down.

The arguments largely centred around accountability and transparency in the funding and distribution of Green Party Councillor Mal O’Hara’s scheme to distribute fuel vouchers to those in need during the current cost of living crisis. Other parties alleged a carve-up by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The meeting opened up with a number of tributes to former Sinn Féin Councillor Stevie Corr, who stepped down last week. Welcomes were extended to new Councillor Róis-Máire Donnelly who was co-opted in his place. Mr Corr’s work in the local community was commended, as was his long service and his part in bringing about the regeneration of the city’s cemeteries.

Condolences were offered to the families of two Belfast City Council workers who passed away recently, Ronan Kelly and Paul Surgenor.

Councillor Áine McCabe (Sinn Féin) gave a special mention to the recently-deceased Vicky Phelan, the Irish healthcare campaigner who was at the centre of the cervical cancer checking scandal. Cllr McCabe was appreciative of the work she did for women’s health in Ireland. Tributes were also paid by several Councillors to the late Dr Éamon Phoenix for his lifetime of work in bringing Irish history to life.

Councillor Mal O’Hara acknowledged World AIDS Day and commented on the North’s  AIDS statistics, noting that AIDS is no longer seen as a disease which affected the LGBTQ+ community. He said it was worrying that around 20 recent transmissions of the virus in the North had come about through drug use and called for more action and awareness to be raised around this issue.

Some members of the Council expressed dismay at recent minutes of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee being withheld from the press and public. Councillor O’Hara had asked why and been told it was because the minutes contained sensitive information. He lodged a point of concern that too many items were being held from the press and public, saying this did not look good regarding openness and transparency.

Councillor Ronan McLaughlin (Sinn Féin) spoke next about widespread concern over upcoming rates rises in February. 

The most heated arguments of the night came when Councillor O’Hara’s Fuel Poverty Hardship fund was discussed. The main conflict was over the £60,000 total household income eligibility threshold. It was suggested that this be lowered to £43,000.

This was rejected by Councillor Ryan Murphy (Sinn Féin) who said it was too low, and a household with two working parents could easily exceed £43,000 and still be on the breadline. He asked for it to be kept at £60,000 and also urged that it include those who pay for their fuel via direct debit.

Councillor Michael Long (Alliance) said the distribution of the vouchers needed to be more democratic and inclusive. He said putting the vouchers out to just the Council’s nine strategic partners had been acceptable during the Covid pandemic, as help needed to go out immediately, but there should now be an open competition. He also urged a review of how the strategic partners had handled themselves during the pandemic.

Councillor Fiona Ferguson (PBP) said Council should look into the strategic partners, adding it wasn’t democratic for the funds to be distributed by hand-picked groups without the press or public being allowed to see the details. Councillor Ferguson said it amounted to a carve-up of community funds by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Councillor Brian Heading (SDLP) said two of the strategic partners had been replaced at short notice. He said they had been substituted "faster than players on the Iranian football team". Councillor Donal Lyons (SDLP) called for thematic funding, and furiously hit out at the two main parties, calling them "Tories". Councillor Lyons said the SDLP and other parties simply wanted to make sure the funds went to the people who needed them the most.

Councillor Ciarán Beattie (Sinn Féin) said that the strategic partners could ensure the vouchers were given out quickly, and also that £43,000 was too low and would lead to some people not receiving vouchers despite currently struggling with the cost of living.

Green Party Councillor Anthony Flynn urged support for the £43,000 threshold and said that the Council’s strategic partners were being shown privilege in relation to the vouchers.

PRIVILEGE: Councillor Anthony Flynn accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of wanting to hand out the vouchers to a privileged few groups

PRIVILEGE: Councillor Anthony Flynn accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of wanting to hand out the vouchers to a privileged few groups

DUP Councillor Dean McCullough took exception to the claim that the strategic partners were privileged. He said the partners had helped many people and agreed with Councillor Beattie that the cap should remain at £60,000. Councillor McCullough added  that the other parties were engaging in "sniping from the sidelines" and asked them what work they had done on the ground themselves.

Those comments caused uproar in the chamber as Councillor Séamus de Faoite (SDLP) furiously hit back at Cllr McCullough, saying he would not take lectures on doing work from the DUP who are currently not doing any at Stormont. Cllr de Faoite said the strategic partners had missed some vulnerable people during the Covid pandemic, so it was wise to review the strategic partners to make sure the money was going out to those who need it most.

Councillor Matt Collins (PBP) said was "nauseating" to hear criticism about people not doing their jobs from the DUP. He added there were many great groups who weren’t strategic partners and said there was dishonesty from the two big parties.

SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte said his party would take no lectures from the DUP and said their criticism of other parties "beyond the Pale". Cllr Whyte said the DUP helped bring about the necessity for fuel vouchers by supporting the Tories and Brexit.

The motion next went to the vote, with the DUP and Sinn Féin voting together to reject the lowering of the cap to £43,000 by 30 to 24. The second motion – to use the Council’s strategic partners for the vouchers scheme – saw the DUP and Sinn Féin vote together again, carrying the motion 30 to 24.

Things calmed down subsequently, with the members breezing through the minutes of meetings. 

Councillor Donal Lyons asked why there was no Christmas tree lights switch-on this year. Councillor Carl Whyte said there was widespread confusion about why the always popular event had been cancelled, and the Council asked for a report to be produced on why that decision was made.

Another flare-up came around the issue of climate change. The DUP’s Councillor Naomi Thompson put forward a motion to reduce the climate change meetings to one every two months. There were numerous arguments against this from Green Party Councillors and Councillor de Faoite, who sits on the committee. The DUP said the meetings were not substantive enough and had low attendance.

The motion went to a vote, the UUP voting with the DUP, but the attempt to reduce the number of meetings was defeated 39 to 18.

The Council next debated public transport after midnight. Arguments were made by a range of Councillors, with a common worry being that women currently feel unsafe in Belfast at night due to a lack of public transport and there being so few taxis. The SDLP’s Councillor Gary McKeown said an enhanced post-midnight service makes perfect sense and it is a disservice to Belfast not to have it. Councillor Fiona Ferguson said late buses should be put on, but that workers should receive what they deserve for operating at night.

The motion was agreed by all.

A big surprise came at the end of the night when the DUP’s Dale Pankhurst announced he was stepping down from Council at the end of the year. He was thanked for his service by Lord Mayor Tina Black and other Councillors.