PEOPLE are joking that Ballycastle’s £63,000 ‘Gateway’ signs which feature a man holding a fiddle look like the figure is clutching a rocket launcher now that Moyle Council has officially ‘twinned’ with Gaza, Ulster Unionist councillor Joan Baird claims.

She said many people in the area think it is a “disgrace” that Moyle is linking with Gaza which is in ongoing conflict with neighbouring Israel.

The comments came at a stormy meeting of Moyle Council when seven councillors - all nationalists - voted in favour of the official twinning with Gaza and six councillors voted against when Independent councillor Randal McDonnell joined with Unionists.

Cllr Baird said that since the Gaza link was being considered there has been a “standing joke” regarding the man pointing a fiddle over his shoulder in the Ballycastle town entrance signs with people asking: ‘Is that the rocket launcher?’.

During a heated meeting Unionist councillors said Unionists will want to “break away” from the Council.

The plan to twin with Gaza had been on hold since last year to get legal advice, which cost £860, but the council moved ahead with the plan at a meeting on Monday March 12 when Chief Executive Richard Lewis said there seemed to be no definitive advice coming from central government to inform the Council regarding the legal position of twinning with Gaza which has controversial links with Hamas.

The legal advice given by the Council’s solicitor was that there was not an absolute or clear position being taken by those being consulted and as such the legal advice was that ‘it is very much a judgement on the part of the individual councillors now as to whether or not they proceed with the proposed twinning plan’.

Cllr Willie Graham (UUP) wanted to know if the twinning is later deemed illegal who would pay costs but Council Chairperson, Cllr Padraig McShane (Independent) - who has been promoting the twinning saying it will help get humanitarian aid to Gaza - said nothing has been declared illegal in the twinning campaign.

Cllr McShane has previously been to Gaza with the ‘Antrim to Gaza’ group.

Cllr Graham said Gaza and Israel are at war and said Moyle should have nothing to do with twinning with Gaza.

Cllr Donal Cunningham (SDLP) said his party does not endorse violence but was supporting the twinning from a humanitarian point of view.

Cllr Sharon McKillop (TUV) said the Council was “meddling in international affairs” and she said the plan would not get cross-community support in the Council and people could see councillors supporting the move being ‘surcharged’ if there is legal action over the matter.

Cllr McShane said Cllr McKillop had made it the TUV’s ambition to do away with the ‘twinning’ link.

He said nobody was offering to support individuals or groups in Gaza but that it was humanitarian link.

Cllr Joan Baird said given “the attendant dangers” around Hamas in Gaza she said it would be unwise to twin with them and she said they needed to move forward in a positive way in Moyle and not be divisive.

She said the Council boundaries are set to change in two years time and said the link with Gaza may not be guaranteed and they should concentrate on helping people in Moyle at at time when the economy is on its knees.

If people want to help get aid to Gaza she said they can do so through international aid agencies like ‘Save The Children’.

Cllr Randal McDonnell (Independent) said any ‘twinning’ should be community-led and he did not believe 15,000 people in Moyle would be interested in twinning with Gaza.

Cllr Graham told Chairman McShane: “I have been here for a good while in this Council and by bringing this to Council you are the only Chairman who has dared to bring something like this to Council.”

Cllr Graham said it will create division and added: “I know the Causeway Ward and some of Ballycastle, if this goes through, they will want to break away from you.”

Cllr Graham said that death threats had previously been issued to councillors regarding this debate and Chairman McShane said he condemned that outright.

Cllr Colum Thompson (Independent) said twinning should go ahead but Cllr David McAllister (DUP) said there was no equality and said the initiative is a “farce” and accused Chairman McShane of trying to promote something “that you knew would cause division”.

Cllr Robert McIlroy (DUP) believed all councillors would like to see a resolution of conflict in the Middle East but he said the full community in Moyle was not behind the ‘twinning’ plan.

Chairman McShane said he had backing from different sections of the community but Cllr Baird doubted that and said as the Moyle area relies on tourism, twinning with Gaza would be like “attaching a millstone around our necks”.

If people want to give aid to Gaza they could so do through aid agencies not in “this overt political manner,” she added.

Cllr Graham said: “If you vote for Gaza then you are voting for terrorism. We still have two death threats hanging over us.”

Cllr Sharon McKillop said: “This Council will not be able to afford the legal costs if we are in breach of the Terrorism Act.”

13 councillors out of the 15 were present in the Chamber when the vote was taken and seven councillors voted for the ‘twinning’: Padraig McShane, Seamus Blaney, Colum Thompson (all Independents); Cara McShane, Margaret Anne McKillop, Noreen McAllister (all Sinn Fein); Donal Cunningham (SDLP).

Six voted against: David McAllister, Robert McIlroy (both DUP); Joan Baird, Willie Graham (both UUP), Sharon McKillop (TUV) and Randal McDonnell (Independent).

In a statement following the meeting, Cllr Padraig McShane, said: “It has been fifteen months since this Twinning proposal was first brought to Moyle Council. In all that time - information, advice and legal opinion has been sought. Nothing in that information suggested that Twinning with the Municipality of Gaza could be considered illegal. If anything, it seemed to be ticking many of the boxes of a good professional Twinning. Essentially it is forming a relationship on a humanitarian basis with no costs incurred by the rate payer in Moyle.

“While I welcome the decision to Twin with Gaza, I am mindful of the fears of some of my colleagues who had expressed concerns. They deserve time to observe the outworking’s of the Agreement. It is only then that those fears can by allayed.”

North Antrim DUP MLA, David McIlveen, expressed shock and disappointment at Moyle Council’s decision to twin with Gaza.

Mr McIlveen said: “I am shocked and horrified to learn that Moyle Council voted this decision through. As a life-long supporter of Israel, it is completely incomprehensible to me that a council overseeing a magnificent area of outstanding beauty would choose to twin with somewhere like Gaza.

“I cannot understand what the council hope to achieve from affecting this move. To learn that a council in our country would so closely align themselves with a power that has caused so much hurt, pain, suffering and destruction is something that I cannot get my head around.

“It seems ironic to me that in a week when Assembly debated how to promote Tourism in Ballycastle, Moyle Council would choose to go down this route. No matter what your feelings are on this conflict, the truth is that in the past 48 hours alone 60 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, one of which hit a school, which, only by the grace of God, was empty at the time. Why would any council in our country choose to show such a show of support or allegiance to a place like that?

“The DUP representatives in the council and throughout North Antrim have been extremely vocal in their condemnation of this twinning from the beginning. They obviously voted against it at the Council meeting in question. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives who have been the instigators of this shambles of a decision.

“I truly believe that this is a sad time for the area and I would encourage the residents of the area to lobby their representatives in order to repeal this decision as a matter of urgency. 2012/2013 is an important time to rejuvenate the area and to encourage some much needed trade and investment. I cannot comprehend why the council would encourage negative news to the area at this vital time. Moyle District Council has to be very careful. It has a responsibility to send out the right message. We will do our part, and we will support the people who are working hard to try to promote North Antrim in a positive way.”