Opinion

Claire Simpson: Jolene Bunting should have been investigated sooner

Independent unionist Jolene Bunting
Independent unionist Jolene Bunting

IT takes a lot for a councillor to lose their position.

Derry’s Ulster Unionist deputy mayor Derek Hussey has three separate convictions for drink-driving. But despite facing calls to stand down, including from the family of a man killed by a drunk driver, he shows no sign of doing so.

Former DUP councillor Robert Hill drank a bottle of Bacardi Breezer during a meeting of Newtownabbey Council in 2013 but only faced sanctions from his party, and eventually quit, after he dared to criticise then MP William McCrea.

And then there’s independent Belfast councillor Jolene Bunting. No one was more surprised than Ms Bunting herself when she was first elected to the council as a TUV representative in 2014.

The electorate’s card was certainly marked when, shortly after her election, it emerged she had made sectarian comments online in 2011.

The councillor later apologised for her remarks, including one message which read: "I'm so sick of the poor catholic bastards they make me sick.”

At the time I wasn’t sure what was more offensive - her sectarian remarks or her blatant disregard for proper grammar - but those comments turned out to be just a taste of how appalling Ms Bunting’s behaviour can be.

Since resigning from the TUV last year, partly seen as a response to not being selected as an assembly candidate, she’s aligned herself to far-right groups Britain First and Generation Identity.

A selected series of recent lowlights: January saw her arrange a visit to Belfast city hall by far-right politician Jayda Fransen - who was filmed sitting in the lord mayor’s chair; two months later she attended the trial of Ms Fransen and Paul Golding, both leaders of Britain First, who were found guilty of religiously-aggravated harassment in Kent, then in April the councillor defended a racist leaflet drop in the Ravenhill area of south Belfast as “information”.

Over the last few weeks she has organised ‘UK Freedom Rallies’ attended by Generation Identity, one of which saw a tense stand-off between ‘freedom’ protesters and counter-demonstrators.

Another rally has been arranged for July 14, during the already tense marching season.

After more than 100 complaints were filed against her with the Local Government Commissioner for Standards she is now being investigated.

A source told journalist Andrew Madden that the decision to investigate Ms Bunting was “one everyone hates to see happen, but that’s what rules are for - there is an expected level of behaving in City Hall”.

This is the same city hall known for some of the bitterest exchanges ever seen in a council chamber.

Ex-DUP councillor Rhonda Paisley used to, and I’m not making this up, blow a toy trumpet every time Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey tried to speak. Mr Maskey has previously said Ms Paisley also used to shout “lead belly” at him after he was shot in the stomach by loyalists.

Arguably the City Hall doesn’t really have a reputation to protect. Just a few years ago, rows over whether to continue to fly the Union flag over the building saw some debates essentially descend into slanging matches.

Thankfully the council chamber has moved on from the bad old days of complete unionist control and the acrimonious debates of the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly the police haven’t recently been called in to drag any councillor from the chamber, as happened to Sinn Fein’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir when he spoke Irish in 1987.

The real story isn’t that an investigation has been launched against Ms Bunting but why it has taken so long. Arguably she should have been suspended from the council months ago for arranging Ms Fransen’s visit. Britain First may not be illegal but its views are hardly progressive. Far-right groups and their associates shouldn’t be given the publicity they so desperately crave.

In the past, we’ve been mealy-mouthed about sectarianism. We’ve allowed despicable views to go unchallenged and those who espouse them to remain in political office. But no longer. It’s fine to raise questions about immigration policy without defending racist leaflets warning about the ‘Islamification’ of the north. It’s okay to discuss social integration without featuring in a video with a far-right leader outside Belfast Islamic Centre.

Councillors are public servants with a duty to uphold the dignity of their office. When they fall in that duty, swift suspensions should follow and their actions should be thoroughly investigated. No more toy trumpets. No more dog-whistle politics.