DUP members turn on artistic board

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DUP councillors have accused the council’s artistic board of “embarrassing” the local authority by its decision making in the row over the RSC play ‘The Bible (abridged).

At Monday night’s full council meeting the DUP sought to distance itself from last week’s decision to axe the production, pointing out that neither of its members was present when the artistic board made its decision - a call the board said it had been forced into taking due to political pressure.

The party took the stance despite concerns about the play first being raised by DUP Alderman Billy Ball during a council committee meeting earlier this month, and the fact that his wife, Cllr Audrey Ball, put a proposal to last week’s Policy and Governance Committee meeting that the show be pulled.

While a DUP statement acknowledged that “the artistic board should be independent of council”, it branded its current systems and processes “a shambles”.

Cllr Tim Girvan took a swipe at the board, saying: “In light of the artistic board’s latest decision, I would like to express my concern about the board’s ability to make decisions.” He branded their actions “farcical” and accused the board of “causing a large amount of embarrassment to council” and requested a review of its procedures in deciding what events and plays are shown in the borough’s theatres.

While receiving support for his proposal from party colleagues, and Alderman Fraser Agnew, his criticism sparked an angry reaction from others in the chamber.

“The DUP has been very badly bitten by public opinion on this occasion and it has decided to get its own back and that the next board will be curbed and reflect the sort of views we heard last week,” said Cllr Tom Campbell.

“We have spent £7million on a first class facility. We want to see that facility thrive and it will not thrive if councillors become involved in deciding what ratepayers are allowed to watch,” he added.

Defending the board’s members, Alderman John Blair described them as “willing, capable, experienced people”. And he said they were being “judged by people who know little or nothing about them or what they do.”

UUP man John Scott accused Cllr Girvan of “taking a cheap shot” at the artistic board and of “running down” its members, while Cllr Noreen McClelland added: “There is expertise on the artistic board and we should allow those with the expertise to make the decisions.”

Twelve members - Agnew, Ball, Ball, Barr, Brett, DeCourcy, Girvan, Girvan, Hill, Hogg, Mann and Walker - voted in favour of the motion to review the board’s decision making procedures, while 10 others - Blair, Campbell, Cosgrove, Fraser, Mackessey, McClelland, McCudden, O’Reilly, Scott and Webb - opposed it. Cllr Jim Bingham abstained.

Following Monday night’s meeting, several DUP councillors declined to make comment on the proceedings, instead saying that former Ballyclare councillor Paul Girvan would be speaking on behalf of the party.

Revealing that he had viewed clips of the play online and found them “offensive”, the South Antrim MLA acknowledged the right of individuals to choose whether or not to see the show.

“Everyone has the right to do what’s right for their own conscience, but it doesn’t lie easy with me,” he said.

Backing his colleagues’ call for a review of the artistic board’s decision making procedures, he added: “If there are areas where they (councillors) think there are going to be issues and contention then at least there will be an opportunity to discuss those and deal with them at an earlier stage rather than wait until it’s the 59th minute of the 11th hour. It is vitally important that we have some controls over the content of some of the programmes that are put forward. We don’t want this facility to be used in a way which causes embarrassment to any section of the community.”