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A heated conversation took place at Wednesday nights full council meeting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council on whether or not Councillor's should  invite representatives from Newry Cathedral Parish to  meet with the Newry City Centre Regeneration Programme Board. The discussion lasted 45 minutes and proposals by Cllr Gary Stokes and Cllr Gavin Malone to invite Parish representatives to meet with Board members ultimately failed.

It follows the very public announcement from the Parish last month when Parish representatives said "The plan to create a Public Square etc at Abbey Way and the plan to create a Civic Hub/Council Offices, where the multistorey car park currently is, will both lead to the removal of crucial parking facilities behind the cathedral. This will effectively leave the cathedral without a congregation and deprive the businesses on Hill Street of their customers. It will also negatively impact on disabled and less mobile people who will have severely reduced facilities to park close to the cathedral and Hill Street."

New Council offices are proposed for behind Newry Cathedral. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
New Council offices are proposed for behind Newry Cathedral. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Speaking on Wednesday night Cllrs Gary Stokes and Gavin Malone both expressed their concern that while Parish representative were obviously not happy with the new proposed Council offices, Council officials were stating that positive discussions were taking place"

When it came to the ratification of the March Strategy Policy & Regeneration Committee minutes from 11 March at Wednesday's meeting, Cllr Gary Stokes spoke first.

Cllr Stokes "Chair you will be aware that we as a council have been in discussions with Newry Cathedral Parish in relation to the gardens behind the Cathedral and our proposed new council offices behind the Cathedral. Some Councillors, maybe not all Councillors will not be aware, the Parish this week have come out completely against the proposal which is very sad, both coming out against the Council Offices themselves and the proposal in relation to the gardens. Now our officers I believe, they were in positive discussions with the Parish and it's unfortunate we find now that the opposite is the case. I understand it was given out at Mass during Holy Week encouraging the congregation to complete the Consultation, against the proposals and indeed was in the Easter Parish Bulletin.

Cllr Gary Stokes



"Chair I suppose two things, I think it's important and I have written to Mr Mallon to try and get resolution to this and hopefully get something positive, that we would invite the Parish. Now they may not want to come, but we at least issue the invitation that Parish representatives would meet with the full Programme Board and we would have a chance to discuss any options going forward and to get a way out of that and I think that would be important, and I also think it would be useful if the minutes of those discussions were circulated with the Project Board members. I'd like to make that as a proposal."

Councillor Gavin Malone tried to get in to the conversation but Chairperson, Cllr Devlin interrupted "Cllr Stokes, that's obviously, as my understanding is that's an agenda item on the Project Board for next Tuesday to be discussed by the Project Board, so I don't want to open this up in terms of a whole debate right now." To which Cllr Malone interjected with "I'm looking to second Gary's proposal, I completely agree with what he is saying. It looks like we've been mislaid."

Chairperson, Cllr Devlin pointed out that Cllr David Taylor had already seconded the proposal.

Speaking Cllr Roisin Mulgrew said "I know Councillor Stokes sent an email to one of our council officers last week and I'm sure it was an oversight on his behalf, but he forgot to include myself and his party colleague, as the two co-chairs of the program board and indeed the only other Sinn Féin representative and a regular church goer in the Newry Cathedral, that is Charlie Casey. I'm sure that was an oversight. Em because this is all about inclusion and keeping everyone on board.

Cllr Roisin Mulgrew



"As a result of that the co-chairs of the Programme Board offered to meet with the Parish to discuss any issues that they had prior to our programme Meeting next week. Now it would appear that Councillor Savage has rejected that offer of a meeting and I'm not entirely sure why, because I just feel that that's about muddying the water, because the bottom line here is that the Councillor's of this Council makes the decisions and by meeting the councillor's that are on the Programme Board, they don't need to meet officers. We're the ones that have instructed the officers to go and do their job. Now, I'm quite happy as an individual and a member of Sinn Féin to meet with the Parish Council, based on the knowledge that we have instructed our officers to go and do their job. That offer was declined. Councillor Stokes has rejected that offer. Now there are serious governance issues regarding taking individual stakeholders into the Program Board, and we need to get clarity on that, because we will hold this project up forever if we are going to continually take individual stakeholders, because all stakeholders are equal. And the real shame here is that, that garden belongs to the people of Newry, as does the Church. And I think it's an awful shame that that garden, the people of Newry are denied access to it - that's my own personal belief. But we need to be very careful here on the governance issues around the Programme Board, and I think that Councillor Stokes is being politically devious in terms that he knows that that offer of a meeting with the Councillor's was made and he rejected it."

Shame on Them

Chairperson Devlin tried to take control but Cllr Mulgrew continued "If this continues to go on, Councillor Stokes and Councillor Savage are going to be known as protestors of progress in Newry City, and shame on them, absolutely shame on them."

Chairperson Cllr Laura Devlin



Chairperson, Cllr Devlin said to Cllr Mulgrew "You've been in the Chair and I wouldn't have shouted over you, so please let me continue. We're getting into territory to be debating something that's on an agenda for your group next week, so I'm not taking any more comments here folks. It's on an agenda item that's going to the Project Board next week."

Cllr Gary Stokes then protested about Cllr Mulgrews comments. "Chair I must come in, Cllr Mulgrew has accused me of being dishonest"

To which Cllr Charlie Casey remarked "you can't ... you cut Roisin off"

"I would ask Councillor Mulgrew to please withdraw that accusation of dishonesty. That's all." Added Cllr Stokes.

Chairperson "We need to move on here Cllr Stokes, I'm sorry. Do we have any other matters arising"

Cllr Michael Savage then wanted to speak on the matter.

Chairperson Cllr Devlin "Is this regarding a different item or is this the same agenda item?"

Cllr Savage "It's the same item but it's actually THE item, not the item that's been discussed. It's the actual item itself."

Chairperson "With all respect, we are trying to move on here. Thee's an agenda item, it's going to a board next week ..."

Cllr Michael Savage

Cllr Savage "This relates to the actual item in the Minute Chair. It relates to the proposal that was made at the SP&R that night that everybody was privy to who was at the meeting which I made. In this position that we find ourselves and we are running into difficulties and unlike what Councillor Mulgrew has said to me, I am for progress in Newry. But I want to make sure that we bring everybody with us. And you know, let's be honest we did ask questions right along the ways throughout the path of this project to date. And we were told by officials that there had been positive, advanced discussions with the Parish on this matter and that they were at an advanced stage and going positively. Now things have taken a dramatic turn in a different direction, ahead of that and having heard that on the ground. I made a proposal at the SP&R meeting that night that we should, as a council be prepared for whatever comes out of the consultation, that we look for a potential Plan B, and we look at other options If, for example, we run into difficulties with this. Because unlike what Councillor Mulgrew is saying, I want us to develop a new office complex as part of the regeneration scheme, but if we run into difficulties and problems with it It's only prudent, that we look for a plan B. And that's what was proposed at the Thursday night meeting of the SP&R. That's not standing in the way of progress that's looking for solutions to potential problems that may halt the project."

Chairperson "I'm getting mixed up here. What exactly are you proposing. Obviously the consultation's underway. There's a project board next week, that the Church I understand is separate but what's your proposal."

Cllr Savage "I was speaking on a proposal that I had made in the minutes which was that the council consider engaging with other private entities who have projects on the table that include a Grade A office accommodation as a potential plan B for the site of a Civic Centre if we run into significant difficulties."

Chairperson "What's different Michael. If that's your proposal, it's on the papers, it's in front of me. You're repeating to me what I can see in front of me here what's different."

Cllr Savage "What I was doing was clarifying what was said because Councillor Mulgrew had said that what I was referring to was standing in the way of progress for the city which couldn't be further from the truth. It was about providing solutions, if we ran into difficulties, it was about the positive not being negative, at all."

The Chairperson Cllr Devlin then rather optimistically said "Okay, we're moving on, We're moving on folks with that item we're on to the next one."

Cllr Gavin Malone



Cllr Gavin Malone "Excuse me, can I speak as a Newry Councillor please"

Chairperson "Is it the same item?".

Cllr Malone "Laura does my mandate not count no. Am I not allowed to speak. Other Councillors and our Newry Councillors, I'm asking you, can I speak."

Chairperson Cllr Devlin "Okay, go ahead"

Cllr Malone "I like other Councillors have concerns that the Parish have highlighted what they perceive is not the way forward. And I would like the Parish to meet in the next Regeneration meeting, and I'd like a vote, and a recorded vote on that."

Chairperson "But Gavin that's already an agenda item that's an agenda item for the project board next week that's appearing on an agenda for the project board decided that next week."

Cllr Malone "I am asking for this to be at a full Council meeting."

Chairperson "Okay, thank you, Gavin just taking direction here from Darina (Director of Corporate Services, Darina Carville) obviously in terms of the governance, we've got the Project Board meeting on Tuesday with that request in front of us. There seems to be governance arrangements in terms of putting a proposal forward right now, without the officers being aware to advise if that's something that actually we can do legally. So I think we need to go through the actual proper structures and let that item go to the project board on Tuesday and then move on from there. Okay."

Cllr Malone "Chair could you put it on record that I'm very concerned about why the Parish on Sunday past have highlighted that they're very concerned about what's going on. And we have been told, and certainly I've been told that everything has been going smooth. It was blatantly, blatantly obvious that that's not the case. And I want to know. What we need to do is sit everybody down in the room and then we'll be able to get this resolved."

"I actually want this to be taken a vote this evening. Am I being denied a vote Chair?"

Chairperson Cllr Devlin  "You haven't been denied a vote at all Gavin. At this point nobody's come in to second your proposal, which is what you need first of all for a vote to be put to the floor so this moment in time you don't have a seconder, I think it's also important if you did have a seconder we could bring in Darina to advise us legally where we stand here.

... "So you've now got a seconder Cllr Brown so don't Gavin be saying that you're been denied your vote at them absolutely you can put forward a proposal.

"Cllr Brown now has seconded your proposal so before I put it to the floor, I'll bring Darina in to advise us where we are, because I know Cllr Mulgrew and different members have mentioned governance issues, so we need to make sure that what we're doing is right and proper, so if I can bring in Darina here."

Darina Carville  "Okay, so there's been a request for one stakeholder to come in to the Project Board, and I personally don't have the the terms of reference for that Project Board in front of us, and none of the officers will be able to give you, as Councillors full consideration of what that means. However Councillor's put a proposal on the floor and he has a seconder. If all councillor's wish to vote in that, obviously, that's your democratic right as officers. There has been an accusation from Councillor Malone tonight that he has been misled. That's something that we obviously do need to pick up and that will be done outside of the meeting with Councillor Malone as to what evidence he has for that. But we can't stand in your way but as officers we cannot advise you of the governance implications without proper time to give due consideration. But Chair, you can go ahead with the vote if called upon."

Chairperson Cllr Devlin "Okay so we have a proposer and a seconder so we have something on the floor. Certainly we could we can put that to a vote bearing in mind the information that Darina's just presented to us as members. So, I don't want to open this whole thing up I think Pete Byrne and Roisin Mulgrew are both looking in. Can we keep it as brief as we possibly can. We do have a proposer and a seconder for a vote that is going to go to the floor."

Cllr Pete Byrne "Just a point of information. We all signed up, as Councillors on the Program Board. I think we all signed off on SP&R and ratified it at the full council the governance arrangements and we've got a stakeholder engagement forum of which we bring stakeholders. We have a list of I think the last time I checked 43 stakeholders.

And there is a forum set up that we call those stakeholders in to engage. So I mean, if we're going to just rip up the governance arrangements to say that we can take, a stakeholder, out of those 43 and bypass the stakeholder engagement and go straight to the Programme Board. What precedence are we setting and are we going to turn the Programme Board back into a Working Group.

Cllr Pete Byrne



"I mean, we all agreed that that wasn't the way to do it. The issue of the meeting is not an issue I've absolutely no issue at the meeting, I think everybody in the Program Board wants to meet. There has been a request for a meeting to the Program Board and because of the governance arrangements, in my role as Chair, we can't just ignore the arrangements that's there. So, you know, the seven Councillor's to meet before next Tuesday with the Parish I think is absolutely the perfect forum to do it, Or to convene stakeholder engagement. I mean, have we a right to rip up the Terms of Reference of this Programme Board and go over the top of it tonight. I don't know where I stand as joint Chair on it. And the last thing I will say is when we go in the Programme Board, our obligation our role in the Program Board is to drive this project. And it's not political. You know the politics doesn't come into play in the Programme Board. We make recommendations based on the information in front of us to SP&R and that where politics can take place. You know at the end we make political decisions within the SP&R, but I want clarity on the governance arrangements that we can just bypass stakeholder engagement. And what does that open up for future meetings of the Programme Board because I know there's going to be numerous requests for presentations to the Program Board, and I think it's going to really hold this project back."

Cllr Mulgrew re-entered the discussion "I mean this is just turning into a complete and utter circus and you know we all have sat, myself and Pete Byrne the Co Chair and at the end of every meeting we ask are all Councillor's happy with the decisions made whenever the Governance was being drawn up, everybody was asked are you happy with this and everybody was yes yes yes yes.

"And you know the offer of a meeting with all of the elected representatives was made via councillor... Councillor Stokes was the person that contacted one of our Council officials. It was then sent on to myself and the co chair. We offered them to meet with the council, we had grave concerns about us meeting a individual stakeholder.

"As this independent consultation is carried out there will be an opportunity for everybody to speak their mind. There will be a number of workshops we can absolutely convene a meeting with all stakeholders because everyone must be treated as equal here. We are actually just making a mockery of the governance structures, which we as Councillor's set up, and it would appear to me that when things get difficult certain people duck their head and pretend they don't know what has happened. You know, we are part of this process. And I think what we are doing is very very foolhardy.

Cllr Willie Clarke.

Cllr Mulgrew continued "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this level of investment into Newry City. When you look at all the other things that are happening, the Southern Relief Road our Park development, Warrenpoint Port, and we're going to mess about until we lose this opportunity, and that is totally unforgivable. The mechanism is there for us to meet with the Parish, and all other stakeholders and that is the mechanism that should be used in this instance, and if they choose to meet with us, as was suggested before the meeting next Tuesday. I certainly am more than happy to change my schedule around to meet that meeting happen. That offer was made to Councillor Stokes before Easter."

Councillor Willie Clarke entered the debate "Just to probably agree with the previous two speakers. They are the co chairs of the Programme Board. They represent the majority of the Council. If you take the SDLP and Sinn Féin. So they are speaking on behalf of the Council but the makeup of the board covers all political parties. So that's where the meeting needs to take place, and Laura, you mentioned at the start of your introductions about Castlewellan Forest Park and the arboretum and about the £2.6 Million. That took us five years to get there. And we haven't had this messing about. If we continue down this route of messing about, trying to delay things stalling things you're going to jeopardise the project, and I think that's the point that probably the two co chairs are making and I can understand if the Parish ... We were through similar issues, I remember trying to get, you're aware of it yourself Chair. The school site and stuff in the Parish it gets complicated. But let the Project Board and two co chairs, they're the elected representatives, let them deal with issues with the Parish and discuss the issues with the Parish. We don't need full Council to discuss these issues. I think we're making a mockery, this is time delivering for the people. We're talking about Newry and it continually comes back about Newry and the amount of money we're going to put into Newry, regenerate Newry, and the negativity coming from, astonishes me. So I think we need to stop the messing about. I think you're right Chair, we send us the project board and let them make this decision and send it to SP&R.

Cllr David Taylor

Councillor David Taylor also spoke  "I've listened to the discussion toing and froing here on this issue and certainly my own point of view, I serve on the board, and my interest on the board isn't political it's the interest of trying to develop Newry, you know I'm someone who was born and raised in Newry. And I want to see the city develop because I think it not only benefits Newry itself but the wider district and it brings the potential for future investment, and I want certainly my family to grow up in an area that's prosperous and I think this all plays an important part in that. But I think we have to be frank as well. There appears to be a significant issue developed here and we do need a frank discussion about it fairly soon. And I certainly don't want to interfere with anything that will compromise the governance arrangements in place but we do need a discussion on this issue and if the Programme Board needs to have that on Tuesday we must have it and there must be no attempt to deflect away from the issues that are in place here because there is a very serious issue that could potentially impact on this project.

"It's not enough and I know there's been accusations about Councillors putting their heads in the sand. I don't think any of us can put our heads in the sand on this. There's a major issue developing here that we need clarity on and I certainly want clarity as a Programme Board member because I want to ensure, when I'm taking decisions on any anything regarding to the various projects that we have full information in front of us. "

Cllr Taylor continued "We've been told at one stage, and we were told, that discussions were positive, but from what I'm seeing on social media and I'm not saying who's right or who's wrong on this but what I'm seeing on social media, there appears to be a counter to that. We need to get clarity on this as to where we all are as Councillor's to make us all ensure that we're getting informed decisions being made on this. These projects, these important projects are vital to the prosperity of Newry and indeed the wider district but we need to make sure that all the decisions that we're taking are fully informed decisions, and that's why I want clarity. It's not any attempt to try and destroy the integrity of the Programme Board. As a member of that Board I want that board to function in the way it should do and benefit everyone in this district but I want to make sure that we are getting all the information in front of us to make informed decisions, and I think we need clarity fairly urgently. That's why I'm keen to discuss this issue with the Parish sooner rather than later. If it needs to be done through the format of the Councillor's so be it but we need that discussion. That's where we need to go on this and we need to go fairly soon to ensure that all the Council is making a proper decision going forward. I don't want to see these projects fall and I know there is controversy regarding certain projects but I know that these projects can bring much benefit to the area but I want to ensure that they are brought forward in the best way possible, that there's no ill feeling on it. That's my position on it. I don't think we need a vote on this tonight. I think we need to iron out these issues on the Programme Board on Tuesday so be it but I am also clear that we need to have a discussion with a parish and do that fairly quickly."

Coming in again Cllr Stokes said "I think it's important Chair that you yourself asked for advice from officers and no officer has said this evening, officers have offered to go off and check. And I think that's perfectly reasonable, but no officer tonight has said that what is proposed is against any governance arrangements."

Recess

Following the discussions Cllr Savage proposed a five minute recess before the vote was taken.

Chairperson Cllr Devlin "I supposed before we go off to have that recess for 10 minutes say, and there is an agenda item for next Tuesday at the Project Board that would deal with the Parish in terms of consultation and engagement, that's already there. I appreciate a Proposal has been proposed and seconded by member and it has to go to a vote, but if we can bear that in mind whenever the voter is being taken.

"Gavin Can you repeat the actual wording of your proposal, please."

Cllr Malone "That the next board meeting that we invite the clergy Chair,I think it's very important that we all sit down together to address problems and and I would like to just say as I'm not here to argue anybody I just I'm hearing one side of the story from the Church and senior management telling us everything's going well and to the be quite honest, it's blatantly not the case."

Darina Carville  "I think it's important that we address the point that was made ahead of any evidence coming forward from Councillor Malone. Officers advise that officers have had a number of meetings with the Parish and at those meetings, there has been an agreed position to be reported back to the Brogram Board. Following the last meeting with the Parish it was agreed that it would be reported back to the Project Board that officials continue to have positive meetings with Newry Parish representatives. So just to put that on record again. We've taken the time in recess to revisit the governance arrangements ahead of your vote Councillors, and I'd like to ask Conor Mallon to come in to provide clarification around the agreed governance arrangements with regard to the Project Board, as we've previously agreed by Council."

Conor Mallon, Director Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism  "I have checked the stakeholder engagement and communications strategy that forms part of the governance arrangements for the Programme Board of Newry City Centre Regeneration Project. This sets out the categories of stakeholders that we intend to engage with an the method of engagement with each of those categories of stakeholders. Now I am making the assumption that the Parish falls under the category of a community organisation, and the agreed method of engagement with a community organisation includes stakeholder meetings led by the Council and Focus Groups on specific things. And that's what I would like to provide here as guidance, before a vote is taken. So it doesn't include Programme Boards or Council committees.

Following the lengthy discussions, a recorded vote was held. The motion failed 8 for, 21 against and abstentions.

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