Northern Ireland news

Alliance to 'review' bid to exclude trade unionist from council meetings after backlash

SDLP councillor Ryan Wilson's trade union employment was discussed in his absence in a council meeting on Zoom
Brendan Hughes

ALLIANCE has said it will "review the specific circumstances" behind an attempt by its reps to remove a trade unionist councillor from meetings on council staff redundancies.

The party faced an online backlash after The Irish News reported on efforts to "exclude" an SDLP councillor from some meetings because he works for a trade union.

Ryan Wilson has been a vocal critic of Antrim and Newtownabbey council laying off dozens of staff amid funding pressures due to Covid-19.

Alliance and Ulster Unionist councillors proposed seeking the opinion of council officials on whether Mr Wilson's attendance amounts to a "conflict of interest".

Some Alliance activists publicly distanced themselves from the move over the weekend, while political rivals and other Twitter users strongly criticised the party, labelling them as "yellow Tories".

Issuing a statement later, the party tweeted: "Alliance fully respects the role of trade unions in representing employees and as a progressive voice within wider society.

"The party leadership will review the specific circumstances highlighted in AN [Antrim and Newtownabbey] council with our group.

"There may be legitimate governance issues in this particular situation. Our councillors will act in accordance with the forthcoming legal advice in any substantive decisions."

Mr Wilson's trade union work was raised in his absence by senior Alliance councillor Tom Campbell during an online council meeting.

Mr Campbell said the council has had numerous meetings discussing sensitive commercial decisions on staff and redundancies.

"I'm very uncomfortable about a full-time, salary-paid trade union member taking part in these," he said.

"What I would like to do is seek council's guidance through the chief executive as to whether or not it is appropriate that a member who has those ties is able to remain in the room."

Mr Wilson is a union official for Nipsa, but says he does not have any involvement in matters of local government.

He described it as "astounding" that his political opponents are "attempting to exclude a trade unionist from all discussions on staff and workers' rights".

Enniskillen cross-community Labour councillor Donal O'Cofaigh, who is a paid Unite official, described the move against Mr Wilson as "disgraceful".

"Whatever the politics of the individual concerned, this is a blatant attack on the right to be an active trade unionist and involved in politics," he said.

Mr O'Cofaigh said he has "faced similar attacks and questions from conservative political forces" in Fermanagh and Omagh council.

"On one occasion as I left a picket line where I'd been standing all day with NHS workers striking for pay parity, a Unison rep asked me to see what I could do to get the council to publicly back the strike," he said.

"That evening I raised an emergency proposal in solidarity with the strike, which was unanimously adopted, but not before I was challenged for a potential conflict of interest given my membership of Unite. It's a constant refrain."

Mr O'Cofaigh said the local government system seems designed to facilitate "business-as-usual and to shut out cross-community Labour politics, which is the real threat to the establishment on both sides of the divide".

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