Heated exchanges as new chair is elected

New Council Chairperson Cllr Olive Mercer and Vice Chair Cllr Hazel Gamble (DUP)  � Edward Byrne Photography INB24-228EB
New Council Chairperson Cllr Olive Mercer and Vice Chair Cllr Hazel Gamble (DUP) � Edward Byrne Photography INB24-228EB

There were heated exchanges at Friday’s Banbridge District Council AGM as unionist councillors clashed over whose turn it was for the top spot.

The argument brought an unusual split with the SDLP siding with the DUP and Sinn Fein backing the Ulster Unionists.

At issue was the interpretation of the D’Hondt mechanism used for deciding which party got to select a nominee for the new council chairman.

Once the dust had settled and a recorded vote was taken, Ulster Unionist Councillor Olive Mercer took the chair with the DUP’s Hazel Gamble elected as vice-chair.

The SDLP’s Councillor Marie Hamiliton had proposed Cllr Seamus Doyle for the top spot, seconded by Cllr Sheila McQuaid. Cllr Baird proposed Cllr Mercer instead, seconded by John Hanna, who was also keen to make his party’s position clear: “The UUP is interested in proportionality to select the chairman.”
When you looked at the figures, he said, either through D’Hondt or direct proportionality, it was the UUP’s turn to take the council chairmanship.

He went on: “As an Orangeman I live my life on the basis of equality and fairness, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and bite hard.

“Under proportionality you will see the first position is UUP, the second DUP and the third is UUP.”

“Under proportionality it is abundantly clear. I am disappointed the SDLP have not honoured that agreement, why are they breaking it now?”

Congratulating outgoing chairman Junior McCrum on the ‘impeccable’ behaviour during his year, Sinn Fein Councillor Brenadan Curran said his party supported proportionality and on that basis would be voting for a UUP chairman.

The vote was taken and Cllr Mercer elected by nine votes to eight.

On proposing Cllr Gamble for the vice chair David Herron took the opportunity to state the DUP’s position and said a decision taken on proportionality 19 years ago meant the biggest party would take the chair in the first, second and third years of the life of the council - now in its fourth year.

Cllr Hanna interjected to call this ‘absolute nonsense’. Cllr Herron countered: “I think Cllr Hanna needs to be brought to order. This is the height of nonsense. Cllr Hanna takes over the meeting no matter who comes in and he talks, and talks and talks. The way he goes on would make anyone sleep.”

In a later statement the council’s DUP grouping said, ““The DUP carefully considered all of the options on the table, sought legal advice and consulted with members of the Banbridge PUL (Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist) group, before arriving at a position at last Friday’s Council AGM. The DUP decision to support the SDLP’s Cllr Seamus Doyle for the Chair was an extremely difficult one for the DUP, but one taken looking at the bigger picture for unionism.”

They were determined, they said, to prevent the situation arising where the SDLP and Sein Fein could hold both of the top posts in the same year but now unionists faced exactly that prospect in the final year of Banbridge District Council.

“DUP councillors can point back to last Friday’s AGM and say that we did our best to try and ensure that wouldn’t become a reality. We believe unionists voters will understand the DUP rationale when they are faced next year with the SDLP and Sein Fein taking both of the top Council posts.”