01/12/2011

Mayor 'Sorry For Offence' Over Cadet Award

The Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile has said that he has no issue apologising for any offence caused by his refusal to present a Duke of Edinburgh's award to a 15-year-old girl - who is also a member of the military Cadet Forces.

He has this afternoon defused a growing row at Belfast City Hall as unionist councillors earlier came together to demand a special council meeting to discuss the actions of the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Niall O'Donnghaile.

In a statement issued through Sinn Fein, he said: "As Mayor I have consistently sought to reach out to unionism and loyalist and to be a Mayor for all the people of Belfast.

"My decision to attend the recent Duke of Edinburgh awards ceremony was taken with this in mind.

"I have never and would never go out of my way to cause offence to anyone.

"In any society moving out of conflict we all need to be very conscious of how we deal with sensitive issues," said the civic leader, (pictured).

"Balancing these considerations is not simple. We all need to be tolerant of our different traditions and aspirations.

"I accept that my decision not to present an award to a British Army Cadet has caused genuine annoyance.

"I apologise to anyone who has been offended and in particular the young woman involved and her family. That was clearly never my intention," he concluded.

The Alliance Council City Hall Leader Cllr Maire Hendron has welcomed the apology from Belfast Lord Mayor for refusing to hand a Duke of Edinburgh certificate to a teenage army cadet.

Cllr Maire Hendron said: "What he did was totally wrong and it was only right that he apologisd. I was appalled at what he did and felt sorry for the teenage girl who was dragged into the spotlight by this incident.

"I welcome the fact that he has apologised and that lessons will be learned by this."

City Hall officials had been due to receive a demand for a special meeting from members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party, PUP and independent unionist alderman, Frank McCoubrey.

It said: "This council is appalled that the Lord Mayor politicised the Duke of Edinburgh Awards presentation in City Hall on 28th November by refusing to present an award to a young member of the Armed Cadet Forces; affirms that the civic position of Lord Mayor is about representing and respecting everyone within this city and calls on the Lord Mayor to publicly apologise for his actions and the gross offence caused.

"Failure to do so immediately would render his position untenable and he should resign."

In an accompanying joint statement, Alderman Robin Newton, leader of the DUP Group in Belfast City Council and Alderman David Brown, UUP Group leader said: "The Lord Mayor has brought his office into disrepute by his actions and it is hard to underestimate the groundswell of public revulsion that he has generated.

"The vast majority of Belfast people, regardless of their background are appalled by his actions. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that he has no intention of acting as a Lord Mayor for everyone.

"Throughout his term of office he has behaved in an exclusionary and backward-looking way. Such petty bigotry has no place in modern society.

"We are sending a message that all political representatives need to take a stand for genuine inclusion and fairness. At this juncture it is our hope that colleagues from other parties in the council will add their signatures to our requisition," the politician wrote.

The Alliance Party Belfast City Council Group Leader Cllr Máire Hendron has also condemned the actions of the Lord Mayor.

"I am appalled at what happened. We are trying to build a shared future and I am very shocked at what Cllr Niall O'Donnghaile did.

"Being Lord Mayor is about representing and respecting everyone in the city of Belfast and I am deeply annoyed at Niall O'Donnghaile's behaviour. The message that this incident sends out is very troubling."

The Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt and Strangford representative said: "The Lord Mayor of Belfast once again demonstrated his inability to represent all the citizens of the City."

However, the Lord Mayor responded on Tuesday by saying that he had already gone a long way as an Irish republican in participating in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards in the first place.

He said that he avoided the specific presentation to "avoid any sensitivities" and insisted he was only told "at the last minute" that an award was to be presented to a cadet force member and said someone else then joined him to present the certificates.

Mr O Donnghaile said he would be happy to meet the cadet and her family to explain his decision.

"Since becoming mayor in late May I have attended over 620 engagements, many of them in working class unionist communities.

"I take my responsibilities as being a mayor for all very seriously."

However, yesterday, the DUP Deputy Leader has also raised the matter at Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons.

Speaking from Westminster the North Belfast MP said: "The decision by the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor to refuse to hand out a Duke of Edinburgh Award to a young person simply because they were a member of the Army Cadets is deeply unhelpful to community relations.

"It has been clear from shortly after Mr O'Donnghaile took office that his promise to be a 'Lord Mayor for everyone' in Belfast was little more than hollow rhetoric," he said.

(BMcC/GK)

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