Where bigotry is a way of life

September 4, 1991

By Sean Magill

A recent letter from Belfast to Australian Aid for Ireland reveals something of the entrenched bigotry and sectarianism of Unionist politicians.

Written by Mairtin O'Muilleior, a Sinn Fein councillor, it describes Sinn Fein councillors rising to speak, and Unionist councillors stamping their feet and hurling abuse, gathering together at the door of the chamber and creating a din, spraying air freshener in the faces of councillors and sounding rape alarm whistles. A former mayor even blew a trumpet.

O'Muilleior also described the council's attitude to the Irish language. It attempted to close Ardoyne Community Centre because a plaque in Irish was erected there; denied grant aid to all Irish language groups; ordered a Christmas greetings sign removed from Andersonstown Leisure Centre because it was in Irish; passed motions urging authorities not to encourage the teaching of what a former lord mayor called a "foreign language"; voted to ban Irish from the chamber and council stationery — all this despite the fact that the lord mayor's chain bears inscriptions in Irish, including "Eirinn go bra".

Unionist bigotry backfired in April, when a Sinn Fein motion calling for provision of bilingual birth, marriage and death forms was passed after Unionists had left the chamber in a bid to prevent a quorum.

O'Muilleior's report contains direct quotes from Unionist councillors: "A message for the perverts who voted Sinn Fein is that they will never get anything through this Council"; "If I'm a bigot, I'm proud to be a bigot"; "Itinerants are rubbish. The only place for rubbish is the incinerator"; "Sinn Fein are evil human pus"; "Nelson Mandela is a black Provo"; "The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) is the sporting wing of the IRA"

During a debate on the Gulf War, a councillor called for sanctions to be imposed on Nationalist areas and, referring to Republican political prisoners, said, "Maybe we could uphold the old Mexican thing and just stick them up against a wall". His remarks led to a public rebuke from the Mexican ambassador to London.

No Sinn Fein member is allowed to attend any City Hall function. No Sinn Fein member is permitted to take part in study visits. Attempts to locate a leisure centre in Nationalist North Belfast have been blocked, even when the Department of Education offered over $2 million to get the project going.

In the 1989 council elections, Sinn Fein returned eight councillors, making it second biggest party at City Hall after the Official Unionist Party (OUP), ahead of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Sinn Fein has attempted unsuccessfully to compromise with the Unionist power bloc, stressing that confrontation is detrimental to the entire electorate. In a public statement, Sinn Fein offered to cooperate with Unionists to tackle issues of concern to all citizens of Belfast, provided they "ceased denigrating Catholic/Nationalist electors, ended discrimination against Nationalist areas and stopped abusing the little power they had".

O'Muilleior winds up his paper with a report on the violence of council. Lord Mayor Sammy Wilson entertained two Canadian gun runners (later convicted by a Toronto court) in the mayor's parlour, where they met Ulster Volunteer Force leaders. During their stay in Belfast, the gun runners lodged with the lord mayor's chauffeur.

Wilson is a founder member of the paramilitary Ulster Resistance and attended its inaugural rally in the Ulster Hall (a council-owned building). Arms dumps have been discovered in the north, and senior members of the organisation await trial in Paris, where they are alleged to have tried to sell sophisticated missile equipment to the South African government.

Wilson has declared, "Ulster Resistance has made it clear that it is preparing to defend Northern Ireland against aggression from Britain or the Republic of Ireland". After the assassination of Catholic Gerald Slane, Wilson said "I have no regret that someone openly identified with terrorist organisations and activities meets his death the same way". Both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Slane's family refuted Wilson's "terrorist" claim.

Other six county councils also have their share of violence. Castlereagh Unionist Denny Vitty called for an Alliance councillor to be shot as a traitor after a council discussion on the Hillsboro Treaty. Strabane DUP councillor Ronald Brolly was convicted of arson against a Catholic school. Down OUP councillor Jim Cochrane was convicted of manufacturing machine guns (with the help of a government grant).

Sinn Fein councillor Alex Maskey was openly mocked in council after an attempt on his life. Councillor John Davey (South Derry) was shot dead in February 1989. Phelim McNally, brother of Sinn Fein councillor Francie, was shot dead November 1988 while visiting his brother. Former Belfast councillor Sean Keenan was wounded in his home in June 1990 (also wounded on a previous occasion during an

attempt on the life of West Belfast MP Gerry Adams). Belfast Sinn Fein candidate Harry Fitzsimmons was shot in chest, 1985. Craigavon councillor Brendan Curran was injured in a gun and grenade attack in 1990.

Since Mairtin O'Muilleior wrote his report, Donegal councillor Eddie Fullerton was shot dead in his home. The murder was claimed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

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