A WAR of words erupted at a meeting in Ballymena on Monday night as a majority of councillors rejected an Alliance Party bid for an “independent investigation” into events surrounding the temporary removal of 12 Council staff from inspection duties at Larne port for a number of days at the start of February.
The Alliance Party motion was rejected by 26 votes to 11.
Larne Alliance Party councillor Danny Donnelly told the meeting: “Openness and transparency are vital in a local Council. We are meeting here tonight exactly three weeks from the Council meeting when we were asked to vote on removing staff from Larne port due to concerns about their safety.”
He said the vote at the start of the month had been unanimous and he was one those who had supported the withdrawal of staff “based on the information given at the time”.
Cllr Donnelly added: “Subsequent events, however, have caused considerable doubt as to the veracity of the information on which we as councillors were asked to make that decision.
“Statements from the PSNI and the trade unions questioned the facts given to elected members on the 1st of February.
“We feel that these discrepancies have not been resolved despite requests for clarification.”
He said they all now know there will also be a Stormont investigation into the suspension of the border post checks as members of the Agricultural Committee voted in favour of an inquiry.
Cllr Donnelly said that investigation “will be interested in the actions of this Council” and he expected “some off icials and elected members” to be called to give evidence “but the Assembly Committee may not investigate all the internal issues that this Council needs to address, that is our responsibility.”
“In proposing this motion I intend to highlight the events and inconsistencies”.
He added: “What we as councillors need is a clear timeline of events and communications that led to the information we were given at that council meeting on the 1st of February. Who knew what?, when? and what were the sources of this information?”
Cllr Donnelly said decision had “serious consequences” and afterwards there was “heightened political tension” and the Council decision was “reported around the world”.
He added: “It is a very serous issue of great public interest”.
“Investigations into issues in Council are not a waste of time or of finances but a key component in public trust in our institutions. This is about the integrity of the Council we all serve in.
“This is not a personal attack on anyone or a politically motivated campaign or a political football, it is simply an attempt to get to the truth of this matter.
“If there is nothing to hide there is nothing to fear. An independent investigation into the circumstances around this decision will help to repair the damaged reputation of the Council,” the councillor said.
Coast Road DUP councillor Angela Smyth said it was “disappointing that the Alliance Party have decided to make a political football out of the safety of our staff.
“Whatever your views are on the Protocol, Brexit, or the Union, here in Mid & East Antrim our first priority as elected members is, and should always be, the duty of care we have for our staff .
“The wellbeing of our staff should be our number one priority, that includes our Chief Executive who works tirelessly for this organisation to make it the success it is”.
Councillor Smyth alleged Cllr Donnelly had decided to “attack our Chief Executive”.
She added: “The Alliance Party had every opportunity on the night (February 1) to ask questions but instead they have been completely hypocritical and, arguably, inflaming the situation itself by calling a special Council meeting and showing further disregard for the safety of staff .”
Cllr Smyth accused the Alliance Party of attempts to “smear the Chief Executive” and said using workers as a “political football” was “politicking of the worst kind”.
Ballymena TUV councillor Matthew Armstrong said the Council and ratepayers could “ill afford” an inquiry and “be entangled in a ‘he said, she said’ playground nonsense because that is essentially what it is”.
He branded it a “political exercise” and thought it was best if the matter was “nipped in the bud and put to bed” now.
Larne Lough DUP councillor Gregg McKeen said it was a case of “smoke and mirrors” from the Alliance Party and others”.
He made reference to “false accusations being made without one shred of evidence being brought forward to say there was anything other than what we made on the night with that decision”.