Belfast City Council is to discuss creating a citizen’s assembly for the city on Irish unity.
At the council ’s Standards and Business Committee this week, elected representatives agreed to forward a motion on the creation of a forum to next week’s full council meeting for discussion.
The motion, from Sinn Féin Councillor Ciaran Beattie, states: “Without prejudice to the constitutional position of the citizens of Belfast, this council will establish a citizens’ forum to discuss the possibility of future constitutional change and the planning that will be necessary in advance of any referendum. The citizen's forum should also examine the potential benefits for the City of Belfast that would arise from any new constitutional arrangement.
“This forum will be reflective of the totality and diversity of our society. Provision for a unity referendum is contained within the Good Friday agreement, and prudent planning must take place in advance of any potential referendum to ensure that citizen’s views are directly represented.
“This council will also write to the Taoiseach to inform him of this exercise in participative democracy by the citizens of Belfast and encourage the Irish Government to establish an all-island citizen’s assembly which also includes the views of Belfast citizens.”
There was a vote on whether the motion should be progressed to full council, with 10 supporting from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and People Before Profit, and six against from the DUP, UUP and PUP.
PUP Councillor Billy Hutchinson tried to have the motion quashed on grounds it was incompetent, but failed. He said: “In my point of view this is a breach of the Belfast Agreement. It doesn’t fit into any of the strands, and if it did it would be strand three, that is east/west - which isn’t the case. I think it is incompetent.”
The City Solicitor said: “We have carefully considered this one, and we believe it would probably have an impact upon the council’s governance arrangements, and therefore we are of the view that it would be competent in that context.”
The motion will be discussed at next Tuesday’s full council meeting. A similar motion by the SDLP to write to the Taoiseach regarding the establishment of a “New Ireland Forum” will face ratification at the meeting after passing committee stage earlier this month. At that meeting Alliance joined with unionist parties to vote against the SDLP motion.
Belfast City Council has 60 elected representatives. The combined force of Alliance and the unionist parties vote amounts to 29, while the combined vote from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Greens, and People Before Profit amounts to 31. The passing of both motions are not guaranteed, and the outcomes may well be decided by attendance.