Councillors ‘at war’ over funds for army charity

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A proposal for Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council to buy tickets to an Army Benevolent Fund (ABF) charity event has led to a war of words.

Lurgan Sinn Fein councillor Liam Mackle said ratepayers would be ‘horrified’ to know their rates would fund such an event.

However, the DUP’s Mark Baxter said Cllr Mackle’s comments were ‘ludicrous’ while the UUP’s Arnold Hatch said it was a ‘typical response from Sinn Fein’.

The Council had been invited to send councillors to the ABF The Soldiers’ Charity (NI) ‘Ulster at War’ Concert next month.

The ABF is the national charity of the British Army and provides support to soldiers, veterans and their immediate families.

At the last Leisure and Community Committee, it was recommended that four councillors accept the invitation at £45 per person - a total cost of £180.

Cllr Mackle said: “We opposed a proposal that ratepayers foot the bill for councillors to attend a British Army fundraising event.

“Many of the ratepayers that we represent would be horrified to know their rates are going to fund attendance at an event like this particularly given the track record of the British Army here in the North.

“We made it clear that attendance by any councillor at this ‘soldiers charity’ event is not for ratepayers to fund. If councillors wish to attend then they should do so with their own money.”

However, DUP Cllr Mark Baxter responded: “This is a very disappointing rant from Sinn Fein.

“First of all this event isn’t a ‘British Army’ event it’s a concert organised by the ABF the soldiers charity.

“As with all requests this letter was tabled at a statutory meeting of council for consideration and again Cllr Mackle has used this request to buy a few tickets at £19 each to grab a cheap headline.

“ABF carry out sterling work with our armed forces, many of whom live in our borough, and to raise issue with this small gesture of support for a historical fundraising concert certainly doesn’t fit in very well with the Sinn Fein ‘respect’ agenda

“I would ask Cllr Mackle to reflect on his ludicrous comments and to remember that as a council we are there to represent all rate payers.”

Ulster Unionist Alderman Arnold Hatch said: “This is a typical response from Sinn Fein , namely one sided and always against the British Army. Cllr Mackle conveniently 
forgets or ignores the reason the army had to come to Northern Ireland (UK) in the first place was to save lives and property due to the IRA’s murderous bombing and ‘shoot to kill’ campaign.

“The Leisure Services Committee were very reasonable in not taking a full table but merely buy four tickets for the event costing £180.

“The funds raised will be to support our soldiers, veterans and their families who are experiencing tough times, who are of all religions and none.

“Therefore Cllr Mackle trying to make this a political issue is beneath contempt “ Alderman Hatch concluded.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said she agreed with Cllr Mackle that if councillors individually wished to go to the concert and donate to the charity, that was fine but it was not acceptable that ratepayers’ money be used to buy these tickets.

The “Ulster at War” concert is described as a unique musical entertainment event hosted by the ABF Soldiers’ Charity. The Charity is seeking to recreate 1940s Ulster by means of music, comedy and fascinating stories of local heroism from every corner of the province.

The Ulster at War Concert will take place at the Belfast Waterfront Hall at 8pm on Saturday, March 24 and will be a showcase of home-grown talent.

The evening will be hosted by ‘Fermanagh Funny Man’, Gary Wilson and the concert will feature the Band, Bugles, Pipes and Drums of the Royal Irish Regiment, plus a number of other accomplished artistes, with a special cameo appearance by UTV’s Paul Clarke.

A bespoke VIP package for the evening has been designed specifically for representatives (Elected Members) from local Councils.

The package will be hosted by serving Army personnel and includes seats in the designated VIP area of the auditorium, light refreshments and a pre-concert reception and during the interval.

According to the minutes of the Leisure and Community Committee, the costs will be incurred by the Council’s Good Relations Programme.