Row erupts over SF refusal to support borough status for Council

November 16, 2015

A row has erupted on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council after Sinn Fein councillors refused to support a move for the council to adopt borough status and therefore enable the election of a Mayor for the district.

The SDLP Group Leader Colin McGrath has said he cannot understand why Sinn Fein would deny the people of Newry, Mourne and Down Council a Mayor and accused Sinn Fein of making a “u-turn” on the issue.

“The civic position of Mayor is internationally recognised, be you in America, Asia, Australia, Europe or Africa. People know what the term means, appreciate that the person is a figurehead for an area and understand that they are approachable on tourism, economic and cultural matters within an area. For Sinn Fein to water this position down to Chairman and prevent the people of Newry, Mourne & Down from having a Mayor is confusing,” Mr McGrath said.

“There have been extensive discussions in Council to iron out the finer details, and broad agreement amongst the bigger parties that we would not incorporate the term ‘borough’ into our title, that we will not appoint Aldermen and we won’t be purchasing any ceremonial robes. The only impact this decision would have is to enable us to legitimately have the position of Mayor.

“This also represents a u-turn of sorts as Sinn Fein had no issue last year when the Council proposed and seconded and agreed the minutes of the committee which made this decision – with a Sinn Fein councillor proposing and another seconding the minutes.”

Councillor McGrath says Sinn Fein’s position is “political point scoring at a particularly amateurish level”.

“No one in Newry, Mourne and Down Council area thinks that by adopting ‘borough’ status to provide a Mayor is in any way enhancing their support for the monarchy. At a time when Sinn Fein holds the position of Mayor in Derry, Belfast and Cork it makes this move deeply hypocritical,” he said.

“Having a Mayor makes sound economic and governance sense and for Sinn Fein to prevent this shows how sometimes their principles prevent them for doing what is right for the community – a very dangerous place for a political party to be in.”

However, Sinn Fein Councillor Terry Hearty hit back at the claims and said has that borough status does not reflect the image of the district that the council is trying to achieve, and that it is possible to have a mayor without borough status.

Revealing that his party “gave serious consideration” to the issue, he said: “We held a number of meetings with people from the tourism sector and our colleagues in Louth County Council and we came to the conclusion that the description of borough simply does not reflect the image of the area we are trying to present.

“In terms of tourism we are marketing Newry, Mourne and Down as a rough, rugged landscape, a largely rural area that encapsulates both dramatic, invigorating coastlines and rugged, breathtaking hills and mountains, not to mention our three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  All this fits in with our work through the Louth Memorandum Of Understanding to have the Ireland’s Ancient East tourism initiative expanded into the north and right up along the east coast.

“While there are various types of borough, a borough is traditionally described as being a sort of walled town and this takes away from the image we are trying to sell.  A borough is also usually centred around a single town and is distinct from a city.  Our district, however, has a number of large towns, all with their own unique personalities, and a city.

“There is nothing to be gained from applying for borough status,” Councillor Hearty continued.  “If the only motivation for this is that we can have a mayor, then it is a misguided one.   As a council we can still take the decision to change from chairperson to mayor.  After all, the old Newry and Mourne District Council had a mayor for more than ten years.

“I find it deeply disingenuous of the SDLP to describe this as political point scoring. I myself pushed the council to set up a separate group to deal specifically with tourism as I feel it has major potential for the area.  Their allegation of political point scoring is very suspect as it was quite clear that even the SDLP aren’t sold on this idea.  Several of their councillors who normally speak in the council remained silent on this matter, in particular their Slieve Gullion representative failed to voice an opinion and two of their councillors failed to show up at all.  On the other hand the decision to stop any application for borough status was supported wholeheartedly by Sinn Féin, seconded by the Alliance Party and supported by them as well as all but one of the independents.

“Sinn Féin has never agreed to borough status.  Nothing is agreed by any party until it comes before the full council.  We agreed to floor the suggestion so that all parties would have time to investigate and examine it, evaluate the pros and cons and then make their decision at full council.  We examined it and found that not only would it bring nothing to the area but we can still have a mayor without it.  Borough status is not something we can pick and choose from.  You either have it or you don’t and once you have it, it opens the door for all the other trappings and pomposity that come with it.”