AS Belfast councillors returned from their Christmas recess, the debate on the banning of hunting with dogs – which played out in the Assembly before Christmas – raised its head in the virtual Dome of Delight.
In what was one of the most hotly debated topics of the evening, Alliance councillors Peter McReynolds and Nuala McAlister proposed that the council write to the DAERA Minister, Edwin Poots and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Affairs to show its support for ending the practice of hunting for mammals with dogs.
Proposing an amendment to the motion which would have called on the DAERA Minister to launch a public consultation on a ban on hunting, despite the public consultation that had already been carried out on the bill proposed by John Blair MLA being one of the largest in the history of the Assembly, Sinn Féin Councillor Matt Garrett said: “Sinn Féin as a party are opposed to the unnecessary infliction of cruelty to animals, but we also understand the importance for many in rural communities of traditional rural activates like hunting.

“We believe that the regulation of hunting of wild animals is the best approach.”
Cllr Garrett added that it was the opinion of his party that the bill brought before the Assembly was flawed, especially in relation to Clause Six which he said “had very wide scope”.
He added that it was the opinion of his party that there wouldn’t be enough time for the consultation of relevant stakeholders in the current mandate and that DAERA would be the best department to lead on the discussion on the regulation of hunting with dogs.

Speaking in favour of the original motion, SDLP Councillor Gareth McKeown said that he believes most people would be surprised to know that hunting is still permitted in the North of Ireland.
“For the most part, it is illegal in England, Scotland and Wales. Indeed it has been for nearly two decades. The idea that it should be permitted for animals to be chased and torn apart is appalling and harks back to a previous century where there was very little in the way of appreciation of animal welfare.”
Green Party councillor Anthony Flynn welcomed the original motion and said that the Sinn Féin amendment didn’t make sense.

“In the consultation on the latest bill to ban hunting with dogs, 78 per cent said that all hunting, searching, coursing, capturing or killing wild animals with dogs should be banned,” he said.
“The proposed amendment doesn’t make sense. The public consultation has already happened with John Blair’s bill. It was one of the most responded to consultations that we have had in Northern Ireland. What more consultation do you need?”
People Before Profit’s Fiona Ferguson pointed out that there have been less barbaric forms of pest control developed and said that she was baffled by Sinn Féin’s opposition to a ban both in the Assembly and in this council meeting. She also raised concern with Sinn Féin’s proposal to place responsibility for the regulation of hunting with DAERA minister, Edwin Poots.

Meanwhile, Alliance Party’s Cllr Michael Long said that he was gobsmacked at how Sinn Féin had voted in the Assembly and DUP Cllr Gareth Spratt added that in his opinion, the original motion was too broad in its approach although his party would be offered a free vote on the issue.
The amendment by Cllr Garrett, seconded by Cllr Ciarán Beattie was voted down with 21 votes in favour, 29 against and three abstentions.
The original motion was passed at a recorded vote with 34 votes in favour, 18 against and six abstentions.

Elsewhere, Green Party councillors Brian Smyth and Mal O’Hara proposed that Council call on the Infrastructure Minister to introduce free public transport for young people.
Sinn Féin Councillor Danny Baker proposed an amendment that the Shankill and West Belfast Taxi Associations also be included in the proposal which was passed with 20 votes in favour, 18 against and 13 abstentions.
Earlier in the meeting, councillors disagreed over the erection of Irish language signage in council leisure centres. The proposal arose in the minutes from the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee and had previously been subject to a call-in.

DUP Alderman Brian Kingston told council that the proposal to include bilingual signage in Olympia Leisure Centre “flies in the face” of the council’s consultation with local residents.
Cllr Fiona Ferguson described the idea that the erection of Irish language signage in council leisure centres as the erosion of someone else’s culture as “ludicrous” and said that she was happy for the issue to return to committee.
Independent Unionist councillor, John Kyle added that the validity of the Irish language community was not at issue here and pointed to his work with Turas. He pointed to the issue of good community relations which he said arose from whether people feel that the Irish language is being forced on them.
The issue was subsequently referred by to the committee.

While discussing the minutes of the People and Communities committee, Cllr Ronan McLaughlin (Sinn Féin) described the waiting times for pest control as “ridiculous” and called on the SP&R committee to review how better services can be financed. 
Botanic Councillor John Gormley informed council of his concerns regarding the role of NI Water in objecting to a number of planning applications coming before the planning committee and was informed that a meeting to discuss the issue had been arranged between council, NI Water and the Department for Infrastructure. 

This meeting was the last Belfast City Council meeting for outgoing Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie who is set to take up post as Chief Executive and Head of the Public Service for the States of Jersey.
Councillors ended the meeting by offering their well wishes to Suzanne Wylie and sharing some memories of how she has assisted them over the years.