Doubts over SDLP support for Gaza link

CONTROVERSIAL plans to twin Moyle with Gaza, which have caused uproar amongst local public representatives, could fail if the SDLP withdraw their backing for the scheme.

Former Sinn Fein councillor, now Independent, Council Chairperson Padraig McShane, has been trying to get the link with Gaza formally signed and sealed.

But the bid to get the deal finalised is under severe threat as it appeared this week that the SDLP stance could change.

In order to keep the twinning plan going, Cllr McShane will need a majority of Moyle’s 15 councillors to back him.

The three Sinn Fein councillors along with Independents Colum Thompson and Seamus Blaney and the two SDLP councillors have backed the scheme.

The SDLP had previously said their backing was because they saw a link as helping Gaza on humanitarian grounds but they have stressed that if there is a whiff of involvement by people who support violence, they would have concerns.

Last week a picture appeared in the Irish News showing Cllr McShane pictured with a Hamas chief who praised bin Laden.

And it is understood that story has had the SDLP reviewing their stance.

A source told the Times the report “could proof difficult for the SDLP”.

At the moment Unionist representatives on the Council are striving to get the Gaza link stopped but the votes of the SDLP are vital on the matter if Unionists want to get a majority.

At a stormy meeting of Moyle Council last week councillors agreed to seek legal advice regarding procedures used in the case.

And the meeting was halted for a time after verbal clashes between Chairman McShane and Ulster Unionist councillor Joan Baird.

It was reported in the media last week that Cllr McShane has now suspended his invitation to bring a delegation from Gaza to sign the twinning arrangement.

TUV councillor Sharon McKillop asked the Council to abandon the Gaza links.

She read a statement which said: “I wish to take this opportunity to urge my fellow councillors to carefully consider this proposal. I fear that the implications of the twinning project between Moyle and Gaza Councils will have a negative impact on Moyle Council.

“I would also call on Cllr McShane to declare his personal interest in the twinning project given that he has travelled to Gaza and participated in a number of projects relating to Gaza.

“Furthermore he has proceeded to invite Gaza representatives to Moyle despite the draft proposal not having been signed off. Therefore Cllr McShane has demonstrated that he is unable to remain impartial in this debate. Therefore in the interests of transparency and democracy I would call on Cllr McShane to absent himself from the discussion.”

Cllr McShane said he would not be absenting himself from the discussions.

Cllr McKillop continued: “While there are further political arguments against the twinning project I would prefer that the debate focuses on what is best for Moyle Council and for the people of this borough which we are all elected to represent regardless of political opinions.

“Therefore for the purposes of clarity and so that there can be no confusion on my position I will succinctly outline why Councillors should choose the sensible option of revoking the decision of the previous Council to undertake a twinning project.

“* 1. Community Relations: The previous Council decided to proceed with the twinning project despite all elected Unionist representatives rejecting the proposal. Therefore it is evident that Unionists feel deeply uncomfortable about the twinning project. Cllr McShane has previously claimed that the decision to twin Moyle and Gaza Councils was non-political and that it had support from across the community indeed he further claimed that it was a collective decision by Moyle Council (Ballymoney Times 6/4/11). However the decision to twin Moyle and Gaza councils was never supported by Unionist representatives and therefore never commanded community support. I would therefore ask Council representatives to consider how the twinning project could have a positive impact on local relations when a significant minority remain hostile to it.

“*2. Tourism: Gaza Council is controlled by the Hamas group. Hamas seized political power in 2007 and this year refused to hold legitimate municipal elections. Furthermore Hamas remain classified as a terrorist organisation within both Europe and the US. Not only do these honest facts provide a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the Gaza Council it also means that visitors from the US and elsewhere in Europe may chose not to visit the Moyle area or at best be uncomfortable about doing so because their governments view Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

“*3. Administration/Costs to Taxpayer: The costs to the taxpayer remain unknown. What will the administration costs associated with the project amount to? Will Moyle Council be funding the visit of Gaza representatives? How much will the ‘urban planning’ amount to and most importantly as already highlighted how much will it cost in lost revenue from tourism? With these economic questions unanswered how can councillors continue to support the twinning experiment?

“Given these arguments that I have clearly presented I would close by asking my colleagues if they really want to twin our Council with somewhere that would divide the community and hinder economic progress.

“This move is both backward and divisive – if Moyle Council want to ‘move forward’ then they should revoke the twinning motion.”

Ulster Unionist councillor Joan Baird said: “The Chairman of this Council has been acting far beyond his authority in sending invitations to Gaza when councillors have not even had the opportunity to see what is proposed in the Draft Agreement. He is completely out of order and must retract any letters he has sent to Gaza.

“The Chairman cannot set off on his own to make decisions on behalf of other councillors, he is totally ignoring the democratic process.”

Cllr Baird said she had it on good authority that “the whole Hamas movement has been declared a terrorist organisation by the UK government and that any meeting with a member of that organisation would be in breach of the Terrorism Act 2000. Under this Act anyone arranging, assisting in arranging, aiding or counselling a meeting with any part of the Hamas movement would be guilty of an offence carrying a prison term of up to ten years.”

Cllr Padraig McShane said that on many matters there was not the full support of the Council but that instead they proceeded with majority votes and he said the costs to the Council would be “to the bear minimum” and he said there will be several areas of benefit to Moyle arising from the link and he said the link was proposed as “purely a humanitarian effort”.

Cllr McShane slammed Cllr Baird for trying to “rip to shreds” the humanitarian link.

Cllr Baird said she felt sorry for the conditions the people in Gaza are living under but Cllr McShane said Cllr Baird doesn’t “give a fiddlers”.

Cllr Baird demanded an apology but Cllr McShane said he would not be apologising.

Cllr McShane added that other cities including Barcelona and Tel Aviv in Israel previously had links with Gaza and he again said it was a humanitarian issue “and let no councillor turn it into an Orange and Green issue”.

DUP councillor Davy McAllister told Cllr McShane the Chairman had “assumed Cllr Baird has no feelings” and he said he should apologise.

SDLP councillor Donal Cunningham told the meeting the SDLP has backed the humanitarian approach in principle but said if “any group supporting violence is involved” their support would be withdrawn.

Cllr Baird said there are well-established aid agencies working in Gaza and if the Council wanted to give support it could be channelled in that direction.

Independent councillor Seamus Blaney said to “calm the situation” they should take legal advice regarding the way the Council has handled the situation.

Cllr Noreen McAllister (Sinn Fein) wanted the Council to vote to adopt the twinning agreement on humanitarian grounds

Independent councillor Colum Thompson said there appeared to be “agent provocateurs” at work to undermine the Gaza link.

And he questioned the way people are branded terrorists saying a few years ago the British Prime Minister met Colonel Gaddafi but he is now described as a “terrorist”.

In the end the Council agreed to get legal advice.