A Democratic Unionist party mayor has been forced to apologise to a Sinn Féin councillor and admit he was wrong.
In what is thought to be a first for Ian Paisley’s party, Timothy Deans, the mayor of Coleraine, has apologised for excluding councillor Billy Leonard from last year’s council Christmas party, paid for by ratepayers.
Sinn Féin councillor Billy Leonard initiated High Court proceedings against mayor Timothy Deans and Coleraine Borough Council following the snub last December.
However, the parties settled out of court last week when the council’s legal advisors felt the High Court would probably find in favour of the plaintiff.
Mr Deans agreed to write an open letter of apology to Mr Leonard in which he admitted he had been ignorant of the law regarding equality matters in local government, as well as covering Sinn Féin’s legal costs.
Prior to the settlement, Coleraine Borough Council voted that the DUP should pay the impending legal bill - which is expected to top ten thousand pounds.
Withdrawing the case, Mr Leonard’s solicitors Madden and Finucane claimed Mr Deans’s actions had shown a “casual disregard” for Coleraine ratepayers.
A spokesman claimed they were also in breach of a wide range of equality and human rights legislation.
“It is regrettable that Billy Leonard has been forced to go to court to seek to protect his rights in relation to equality issues first rehearsed before the courts in relation to discriminatory actions by unionist councillors against nationalists in Belfast City Council almost 20 years ago,” the spokesman said.
Mr Leonard described the mayor’s apology as fitting but said it was more important that Mr Deans had been shown to be acting against the law.
“Councillor Deans attempted to pursue DUP policy at a function paid for by the ratepayers. He has learned he cannot exclude republicans on the basis of equality and it is important that we did this,” he said.
Mr Leonard said under the normal course, he would have invited up to eight people from a republican background to the function who have been active in community life.
He also said his party had already been in touch with the local government auditor over the case.
Mr Leonard said Sinn Féin had asked the auditor to pursue seven unionist councillors in Coleraine who voted against a motion demanding that republicans be included from such functions.
He said the six DUP and one Ulster Unionist councillor who voted against the proposal should also be asked to pay the legal costs of the case.