A ROW has erupted over ‘drumming’ at a council meeting in Ballymena.
A discussion was being held at Unionist-controlled Mid & East Antrim Borough Council about funding for Irish language events when an un-named councillor was accused of drumming on his desk as council Chief Executive Anne Donaghy was speaking.
Martinstown councillor Paul Maguire (Independent) raised a ‘point of order’ saying a group called Stealers Wheel had a song called ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ which contained the line ‘Clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right’.
He continued: “And there is some joker to the right drumming on his desk during what you were trying to say or what the Deputy Mayor was trying to say”.
Cllr Maguire asked the Deputy Mayor Cllr Cheryl Johnston (DUP), who was chairing the meeting, if she thought it was appropriate for a councillor to be drumming on his desk when the Chief Executive was trying to give a report on “something that he didn’t agree with”.
The Deputy Mayor said the Irish language issue was a matter they needed to discuss and she asked for respect from everybody so they could hear it.
The ‘drumming’ could be faintly heard on a Council recording of the meeting.
The council had been contacted by the Irish language promotion group Conradh na Gaeilge.
In an emailed letter – provided in Irish and English versions and addressed to the council’s Chief Executive – the group said Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish ‘Week’) ran from March 1 to St Patrick’s Day and events range from language courses to street parties.
The letter asked Ms Donaghy to engage with councillors and the Irish speaking community in the borough so the Council could promote Seachtain na Gaeilge annually.
The group asked for the Council to provide “a specific fund to local Irish language community groups” to support them to organise their own events during the Irish Week.
The letter said: “We are aware that many council’s provide thematic small grant schemes annually and we believe this would contribute to the ongoing revival of Irish at community level”.
The group added: “We would encourage Mid and East Antrim District Council to engage with the local Irish language community to explore ways to best showcase their celebration of Irish within the dates of Seachtain na Gaeilge.”
Glarryford TUV councillor Timothy Gaston proposed that the letter be noted and to move on to the next business.
Ballymena SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan said there had previously been some controversy in Council which was a reference to comments made by the Chief Executive regarding Conradh na Gaeilge
He asked that Council officers prepare a report with proposals and for local groups to be supported in the same way that the Council facilitated other groups.
Ulster Unionist councillor for Ballymena, Stephen Nicholl, said the Council had a grants scheme to which anyone could apply.
The Chief Executive said the first proposal was to mark the correspondence as noted and to advise the group of grants and the second proposal was that a report should be prepared listing suggestions about how the Council would fulfil the Irish language week and engage with local groups.
Crosskeys Sinn Féin councillor Patrice Hardy said: “I think the Council needs to be very very careful here about the decision we make tonight” and referred to press coverage over the previous Irish language issue.
Cllr Stephen Nicholl said: “I find it a bit disconcerting that Cllr Hardy would choose to warn Council about its decision-making process. Council has made it clear that we have a system of grants applications that are open to all groups and all sections of our society and we are not making a differentiation.
“We will not raise one section of the community above the others … and I have to say, that there are those politicians who have done the Irish language a great disservice by politicising it way above what it had to be.
“I think that Cllr Hardy needs to consider that rather than coming and threatening councillors as to what may happen if we don’t follow her line. We are here and making a decision which ensures that all opportunities are open to all our citizens”
Cllr O’Loan added: “It looks as if the Council is about to do itself very significant damage in terms of its image in the broader community” and he asked if it would be appropriate that the Chief Executive advised councillors in terms of its equality obligations.
The SDLP man said: “We see repeated proposals, motions, events that are endorsed widely by the Unionist members of this Council, we rarely see an issue even brought forward, that in the minds of some is associated with the nationalist representatives and the nationalist community, though of course the Irish Language historically and accurately belongs to all”.
The Chief Executive said she had placed the letter on the agenda for direction from members and she believed that either of the two proposals would allow a process to be taken forward.
She said there was an “equal (grants) process” for any group and the Council had increased the grants budget and that if the councillors decided on a report she would do that.
A show of hands vote was taken on Cllr O’Loan’s proposal which fell after a result of six for; one abstention and 24 against.
Cllr Gaston’s motion was then put to the meeting which resulted in 24 for, three abstentions and four against.
Earlier this year, the then DUP Mayor, Cllr Paul Reid from Larne, attended an Irish language event at Ballymena Town Hall.
After the meeting, a Council spokesperson said: “Council had received correspondence from Conradh na Gaeilge regarding Irish Language Week, and it was agreed by a majority of elected members to signpost the group to Council’s grants scheme. Council encourages, promotes and delivers grant funding for a wide range of community initiatives and projects throughout our Borough.”