There were angry exchanges at the full meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh Council, where an Ulster Unionist proposal to cut committee membership numbers was defeated. While the suggestion itself was roundly branded anti-democratic, the overall handling of the motion only served to whip up further furious responses.

The UUP ‘called-in’ a decision to reduce the number of councillors sitting on the main committees,  from 40 to 13.

Councillor Robert Irvine told members: “The virtual meetings aren’t working effectively or to any degree of efficiency …Our committees are too large, cumbersome and unwieldy to be navigated through a virtual platform … Meetings run out of time. This is not a situation elected representatives should put up with. Our electorate will demand we get back to working for them in this challenging economic climate created by Covid-19.”

He proposed nominating 13 members to the Environment, Regeneration and Development, Policy and Resources and Brexit committees.

Seconding this, party colleague Councillor Howard Thornton said: “We need to quickly change our procedures … It is evident we are becoming dysfunctional. Committees have become chatrooms and do not allow real, urgent business to be decided upon.…. We cannot allow this stalemate to continue.”

He verbally swiped at those against this stating: “Some councillors turned to social media and the press to scorn our party … They speak of the bigger parties trying to get them out and an attack on democracy. What a load of rubbish. Get real. Alliance Councillor Stephen Donnelly believes he has greater rights than any other Alliance councillor or colleague in the country. No-one is trying to be discriminatory.”

Noting the position could be reviewed “post crisis” Councillor Thornton requested a recorded vote.

Chair Chris Smyth immediately called the vote, provoking uproar.

Councillor Bernice Swift, Independent stated: “I thought there was to be debate. A lot of things were said that need addressed. This is definitely anti-democratic. I object to this moving any further. It’s disgraceful. This is against all protocols. We’ve never had this before, so do not be setting a precedent. This is definitely what we feel this motion is about.”

Concurring Independent Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh said: “We haven’t been afforded equal opportunity to make our case.”

Sinn Fein’s Councillor Sheamus Greene enquired if Standing Orders allow this because: “I’ve never before seen where nobody is allowed to speak, except the proposer and seconder.”

Also demanding the right to respond Councillor Donnelly stated: “The contribution was used specifically to attack me.”

He asked the Chair: “From now on, if you assume there’ll be disagreement,  are we moving to a vote without any discussion whatsoever? People had great misgivings about this, given the antidemocratic nature of the motion. The manner in which proceedings have been handled reinforces these suspicions.”

Ordering the vote to go ahead, the Chair insisted this would reflect any dissention.

The result came in at 25 against with 14 in favour, made up of both unionist parties.

Pleased with the result, Councillor Swift nonetheless said: “I take exception to the language that independents need to wise up. You don’t tell those who voted for me to wise up. They put their faith and confidence in me, and I am most definitely elected to voice their concerns … I feel very angry at how this has played out.”

She told the Chair: “You ignored my right to speak. Councillor Bernice Swift is not going to be silenced on this or any other issue of concern to the democratic voice of the people.”

Councillor Donnelly urged the UUP to in future: “Handle such issues in a mature, sensitive and consensual way, rather the aggressive manner chosen.  I represent the people of Omagh, and I’m not seeking anyone’s permission, other than theirs to be here. This has exposed the UUP for lack of commitment to genuine inclusion.”

Independent Councillor Emmet McAleer stressed: “It was always going to be contentious, but this was appalling. I am very disappointed by the handling but encouraged by the outcome.”

By way of alternative, he suggested those keen on smaller committees, could consider having the six independent/single councillor parties onboard with the bigger parties filling the remaining places: “To be truly democratic. To many, we are a thorn in the side of the establishment. We have to be given a voice to represent those who elected us.”

Sinn Fein’s Councillor Barry McElduff said: “This was very unsatisfactory. Debate needs to be facilitated … We are the largest party within council and we respect the mandate of all 40 councillors. Diversity is a good thing and we want inclusivity. The strength of feeling must be taken onboard. This was driven by the UUP, supported by the DUP and it’s regrettable.”

Democratic Unionist Councillor Errol Thompson was disappointed by the result but added:” Some independents feel this is against them which it isn’t. It’s from before the pandemic. The meetings take too long. It’s not about unionist versus republicanism or nationalism, but to make it more constructive. However it was a democratic vote and I’m a democrat, so I accept it.”

Councillor Victor Warrington, Ulster Unionist insisted there was no attempt to disenfranchise or silence others but: “We are the only council who has four full member committees.”

Independent Councillor Josephine Deehan described the motion as: “Particularly disappointing, unhelpful and untimely, when as district we face unprecedented challenges. I hope the sensible members will prevail and we can put this behind us. Exclusion is not beneficial to anyone and I regret the UUP decided to take this route.”

Councillor O’Cofaigh said the motion was: “An anti-democratic attempt to exclude and silence non-sectarian and independent voices. There were particularly regrettable comments by Councillors Irvine and Thornton. In reality, this wouldn’t have come forward if single party members and independents weren’t having a significant impact on accountability. The number 13 was chosen specifically to exclude us. I’m disappointed but not surprised, to see it come from the party of big-house unionism, in the past content to run Northern Ireland as a one-party fiefdom.”

Sinn Fein’s Councillor Thomas O’Reilly contended: “In 20 years on the council this has been the worst example of chairing I have seen in a long time. There is a clear lack of understanding. Democracy equals debate. Moving directly to a vote is like sentencing without hearing the defence. It’s totally undemocratic.”

He suggested looking at the Standing Order: “If Chairs have no understanding how to use it. We may need to change it to ensure debate comes first. Democracy is under attack by taking a vote first then having an elongated inquest afterwards.”

Councillor Alex Baird, Ulster Unionist claimed the system is broken and the initiative was: “To create efficient and effective business. The independent and single member parties seem to think they have a right to be on all committees. I fail to see how anyone could say the D’Hont system is undemocratic.”

Democratic Unionist Councillor Deborah Erskine respected “everyone in the chamber” and while their views may differ, they were no less important.

But she added: “We have a real problem here. We can’t get through business. I did not join the council to become a glorified letter writer. We need to collectively move forward because we can’t continue to operate like this. I don’t want this painted as unionism versus anything else, I’m really upset that in 2020 we are still looking through a prism of orange versus green.”

Councillor Erskine proposed examining ways to progress business more efficiently, which was seconded by Councillor Thompson.

Meanwhile Councillor Swift proposed Standing Orders be changed to reflect an element of debate and: “To ensure this debacle doesn’t happen again.”

This was seconded by Councillor Eamon Keenan, Independent who enquired if the original proposal was likely to come back in six months.

Council Chief Executive, Ms. Alison McCullagh clarified: “Once a call-in has been determined, the matter cannot be revisited again at all.”

Both proposals passed unanimously.