Paul Ainsworth at Castlereagh Borough Council

Our reporter hasn’t a prayer at latest council meeting

By Paul Ainsworth

ACROSS the water an interesting row is rumbling regarding the use of religious belief in council meetings, specifically opening procedures with prayers or in some cases a full-blown sermon. An attempt by a judge to ban the practice in England was overturned by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who insisted prayers should be used if councillors wish it. Perhaps he has yet to attend a council meeting in the North of Ireland, where the boundaries between religion and politics remain rather blurred – and that’s putting it mildly.

Castlereagh is a local authority where a nod to the big man upstairs – and I don’t mean the Chief Executive – is the preferred way to begin the agenda. Having covered several local councils over the years, this reporter has sat through meetings where religion is left at the door, such as in Belfast’s City Hall, to those resembling a full-blown church service, requiring both members and observers to stand and bow heads long before the actual business of local governance begins (I’m looking at you Lisburn City Council).

The ongoing controversy regarding politics and prayer was even referred to by local Reverend Mark Browne, who opened the meeting with worship of his own. Describing it as a “great privilege” to be able to open proceedings with Christian worship against a backdrop of rising secularism, he prayed for every member in the chamber, including me.

My newly-saved soul was however, left wondering the purpose of prayers to baby Jesus in a chamber designed to decide on the building of public toilets, and when our blue bins should be emptied.

Also, new Alliance Councillor  Vasundhara Kamble is a practising Hindu, so technically shouldn’t we now have prayers to Shiva, Ganesha and the like?

No doubt the overwhelming unionist majority, from traditionally staunch Christian parties, the DUP and UUP, would start a holy war if the prayers were banned this side of the Irish Sea, although at least one nationalist member was also proudly displaying his Christian credentials with the mark of Ash Wednesday smeared on his forehead. But would ratepayers, keen for their reps to get down to the nitty-gritty of governance, really miss mumbles to God? Is God even listening to what’s going on in Castlereagh? Does God even exist?

Such existential questions are soon forgotten however, as the members settle down to more important matters such as the minutes of the Leisure Park Board meeting – after first turfing the South Belfast News out of the chamber for over an hour as they discussed matters in confidence. Perhaps I wasn’t praying loud enough.

After coffee, biscuits and The One Show on a TV provided to keep me amused while the juicy debates took place behind closed doors, it was back in for a presentation on a community revamp project which took an unexpectedly X-rated turn.

The village of Moneyreagh, south of South Belfast is currently taking part in an Environmental Improvement Scheme, which will see the place ‘prettied up’ with hanging baskets, and a new look village green.

However, DUP Councillor Myreve Chambers appeared less concerned about the proposed new bushes around the town, than what might be going on behind them!

“I would caution that there’s no low-level planting that people can hide behind and get up to all sorts of things,” she warned.

“I’m aware of the problems in the past where the council have had to remove bushes because of what people were getting up to.”

So people of Moneyreagh be warned – you now have nowhere to hide your sordid outdoor activities as those outlining the Improvement Scheme assured the chamber that bushes would be planted at a very low level, preventing – ahem – anti social behaviour.

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