Councillors milking it in the chamber

By Paul Ainsworth

AS a reporter ducking into the monthly meeting of Belfast City Council, one thing I never neglect is remembering to switch off my aging Nokia, for fear of interrupting democracy with a ringtone that sounds like a dalek with laryngitis.

A shame the same consideration could not be observed by our learned councillors, some of whom had to be scolded by the Mayor during Monday’s get-together for unleashing a cacophony of text alerts and ringtones.

Amidst the iPhone orchestra, however, some serious work was being done, such as discussing whether or not £30K of ratepayers’ hard earned cash should be splashed out on a bunch of plastic cows to be displayed around the city centre in a bid to attract tourists.

Part of an art project that has seen some success in other, more culture-savvy cities, the ‘Cow Parade’ was slammed as a “hair-brained scheme” by UUP Alderman David Browne, who wondered of those behind bringing it to Belfast “what they had been smoking”. Whatever it was, have they any to spare?

Cue a torrent of bovine puns, not least of which was Bob Stoker being accused of “milking it” over his speech about the future four-legged graffiti magnets. As Oranges aren’t the only fruits, so too are cows – plastic or beef-based – not the only animals up for discussion in the chamber. Sewer rats, and the now-famous Lennox the dog got an airing, with calls of support for council staff forced to snatch family pets and move them to kennels on canine death row.

However, it wasn’t the dog debate which had the councillors barking at each other across the chamber, but the hoary old issue of languages, which Belfast’s public representatives will be arguing about until Christmas 2099, when both Irish and Ulster Scots will have been wiped out in favour of the tongue of our alien overlords.

Yet it was Christmas 2011 that was causing the consternation, over a Sinn Féin plan to have the traditional “Merry Christmas” sign at City Hall feature the festive greeting in Irish and Ullans.

Yet far from seeing the gesture to have both native lingos in fairy lights as a hands-across-the-divide gesture, some unionists saw it as a way of shoving Irish down the throats of those who still view it as the dialect of militant republicanism. Even the inclusion of the Ulster Scots was dismissed as “tokenism” by those who are so opposed to Irish that they would rather have no Ullans at all if it were to be tainted by a twinkling “Nollaig Shona” above or below it.

The usual claims were trotted out of other ethnic groups, including Chinese and Polish, feeling “left out” as their own linguistic seasons greetings would not be featured. Yet, despite several reminders that Irish is a native dialect in a city whose very name is derived from its local tongue, it seemed some DUP members were still offended on behalf of Belfast’s Azerbaijani community, who would be miffed at the yuletide snub, and the bilingual idea was binned after a vote.

Even more contentious than languages was the South Belfast News, which got some free advertising by the DUP’s Chris Stalford. Reports in our paper of a controversial home rule parade in celebration of another controversial home rule parade 100 years ago, caused him to accuse fellow council members of “running to the press” to point out that not everyone feels the founding of an artificial statelet against the democratic will of both Britain and Ireland is something to eat ice cream and paint children’s faces over.

Yet it should be, as was the case with your favourite South Belfast newspaper, that it’s the press “running” to the councillors, not the other way around, as we actively seek quotes from reps, not sit back chewing our pens and waiting for the phone to ring.

In fact the only time us reporters have to deal with politicians running to us is at election time, when oddly enough, there’s fewer complaints then.

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