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Councillor Danny Lennie linked Rangers v Celtic matches with domestic violence.
SNP score and Labour man brings up the Battle of the Bigot Brothers
By Bill Heaney
I often wonder how many people have been to a council meeting. Have you? Read on, dear reader, to see what you have been missing (or not).
I have been reporting on councils on and off for more than half a century, from Strathclyde Region to the old Vale of Leven District Council to Helensburgh and Cove and Kilcreggan town councils and Dumbarton Town Council.
Last night I had the dubious privilege of covering West Dunbartonshire Council and when I left Clydebank Town Hall after three uninspiring hours of what passes for debate in local government meetings in the 21st century, I was exhausted.
This morning, I am facing the prospect of a day at the computer writing up my notes of half-finished sentences, boring clichés and even the words of one councillor who still finds it necessary to read out what she has to say from a piece of paper – or even off the screen of her laptop.
At one recent meeting, she even read out the introductory words “Good morning everyone”.
Council meetings here are all about confusion and comedy – and not much comedy at that.
Cllrs Bollan, McColl, O’Neill and McBride.
I decided that since we were on the eve of two big European football games, both involving Rangers and Celtic, clubs one councillor was later to describe as “the bigot brothers,” to approach this assignment like a football match which these days I find more enjoyable, but not much.
I put my head into Sky Sports mode and settled down with my notebook on my knees pretending to be somebody else, somewhere else.
But someone suddenly switched the channel and it was if they had grabbed the remote and turned the clock back 50 years to the old BBC and Dixon of Dock Green.
“Evenin’ all,” were the introductory words to the assembled gathering from Provost William Hendrie, who was chairing the meeting. George Dixon will never be dead.
It was as if we had been transported from the shipyards of Clydeside to the docklands of East London.
I was tempted to ask a young colleague to wake me up when it was over, but suddenly we were back in the council chamber with its dark mahogany furniture and portraits of former provosts, Robert Findlay and Jack McAllister, looking down on us from below the elegant cornice-plastered ceiling. And the council coat of arms.
I switched back quickly into football mode and imagined myself in a stadium. There was, however, no atmosphere. The crowd had failed to turn up.
Just four people had been ushered up the back stair into the public benches which was in stark contrast to the numbers who had turned up – it was so crammed that some had to be turned away – at the last monthly meeting in the new Burgh Hall in Dumbarton.
That crowd had obviously seen enough. The special arrangements put in place by preparing the big hall in case the chamber couldn’t cope with the numbers were stood down.
Those protesting people had obviously had their fill of clichés, poor attempts at humour and elected members’ attempts to put each other down for no good reason other than being heard to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.
Cllr Lawrence O’Neill summed it up – “SNP good. Labour bad.”
The match had kicked off, so I had better let you know the teams.
Facing me were the SNP, the nationalist party whose numbers are bolstered by the Conservative and Unionist Party who, along with supposedly Independent Denis Agnew, keep the SNP in power, much like the DUP keep Theresa May in power in Downing Street.
Here we have the strange case of members of a Unionist party supporting the Nationalist Party, whose policies are to get out of the Union asap. And yet voting down the policies of the other Unionist party, Labour.
That’s politics for you.
While the DUP may have got £100 million for their support of the Maybot, Denis Agnew received only a timeworn gold chain to wear plus a tiny hike in his councillor’s salary, bringing it up to £20,000 a year plus expenses. Not bad for a wee boy frae Whitecrook.
Bailie Agnew, Cllr McNair, Chief Executive Joyce White and Cllr Dickson.
Bailie Agnew gives the Nats value for money though. He doesn’t say much in support of their policies such as closing libraries and cutting grants for music students which one might consider sit uncomfortably with his role as convener of the council’s Cultural Committee, but he is right in there seconding anything and everything the SNP do “in the public interest”.
From where I was sitting, this looks very much like Bailie Agnew’s interests.
Then, side on to me, there is the veteran Jim Bollan, the one and only member of the Community Party, the fiery rebel left winger from Renton, who thinks what he says and says what he thinks.
They are all “wishy washy” and deal mostly in whitewash and cover-up.
For this he is not popular with his fellow councillors, many of whom face grave difficulties when it comes to straight talking and dealing with the actuality.
The outnumbered Labour councillors are sitting with their backs to me, still stewing in their juice following the election 18 months ago when the public roundly rejected them.
Wait though, the match is underway.
Mental health campaigner Andrew Muir has been called up to address the meeting about abortion, a hot topic which most politicians of all shades and none would rather not comment on since their views might not go down well with the Catholic voters, whose church forbids it.
SNP leader Jonathan McColl explains to Mr Muir that it’s not within the council’s remit to talk about abortion and everyone sits on their hands and holds their tongue – apart, of course, from Cllr Bollan, who says it’s a woman’s right to choose.
Surprisingly, for councillors previously struck dumb on the subject, the faces on the SNP bench light up and their members break into loud applause for Cllr Bollan. Now there’s a first.
Cllr Karen Conaghan and Andrew Muir and wife Claire.
The SNP’s Cllr Karen Conaghan doesn’t clap and her face turns a brighter shade of red. Maybe that is because her family have for years been involved in the Pro Life movement and she finds herself out of step with her SNP colleagues?
Andrew Muir departs the field of play just as he does often when he brings mental health issues before this unsympathetic council. Mental health is the Cinderella service of the NHS. Anyway, that’s that for him and another one kicked down the road.
Now it’s the SNP’s turn to face the music on a special grant that has been given to Clydebank Music Society to hire the town hall for their annual show. The Council want £10,000 for that – yes, that’s £10,000 – and the society can’t afford it.
However, since these charges are so politically unpopular, a “cabal” of SNP councillors and officials have got together at “a secret meeting” where £4,000 has suddenly become available from an obscure trust.
This was an opportunity for Labour to wipe the floor with the SNP, a sitter in football parlance, but their criticism went sailing wide of the goal after Cllr David McBride said he had got his figures wrong.
Taxi for McBride.
The Music Society got their money though in addition to “a wee cushion” of a further £2,000 which would see them through similar difficulties next year.
An astonishing aside to all this was that it was revealed that the expenses sheet submitted by the musical society included an amount of £3,000 which was to go towards payments to “volunteers”.
“These are volunteers who get paid,” said SNP leader Jonathan McColl.
That was the SNP one up in the match. This didn’t sit well with Cllr Bollan who said the whole debacle surrounding the award of this grant was yet another indication that officials had too much power in West Dunbartonshire.
All these “wee cabals” getting together wasn’t right. It should be the 22 elected members who should decide these things, not council officials.
There was a democratic deficit and the powers of Chief Executive Joyce White should be reined in.
Joyce, who is on a cool £130,000 a year, just sat there and said nothing. Her moment in the sun was to come later when councillors praised her for being the excellent leader of a team that had brought the council so much success in its work.
There was much discussion about the powers of officials and changes in the council’s standing orders which Cllr McColl claimed was “quite straightforward”.
It wasn’t. Indeed, it was anything but. Philadelphia lawyers come to mind.
The New City deal was up next. Jim McAloon, the planning boss who once cut a dash at Hampden when he played for Queen’s Park, showed some nice footwork with his report.
He was faced with questions such as “do we support this?” and “what are our commitments?” and “will this bridge ever be built?”
But the debate was so disjointed that even Jose Mourinho could not have made head nor tail of it.
Cllr McColl wasn’t enthusiastic about the whole thing either, and Labour’s planning spokesman, Cllr O’Neil, asked for a special briefing for councillors.
There would have to be yet another tactics talk.
This issue was kicked into row Z in the stands, much in the same way as the proposal to sell off Hampden Park has by the football authorities.
It was half time when appropriately a refreshing drink was in order and an item on the subject of school milk came up.
“Is that £5,000 you are saving on school milk,” asked Labour’s Cllr McBride. “Yes, it’s in the minutes,” said the SNP’s Cllr Ian Dickson. “I just wanted to hear you say it out loud,” said Cllr McBride.
Then there was a report on Best Value from Audit Scotland and a great deal of back slapping around about how well the council had performed over the past ten years.
I have dealt with this matter before and in some detail. Let’s just say it’s a lot of tosh which has taken no account of recent cuts and U-turns and was written by a former chief executive of a local authority who finds himself a nice wee part-time number to bolster his considerable local authority retirement pension.
There were then lots of small but important matters discussed which really should have been dealt with in committee.
And then the important annual report from the Director of Social Work, which we shall deal with elsewhere.
The match drifted into extra time after a discussion on domestic violence.
Cllr Danny Lennie (there’s only one Danny Lennie) wanted to know the details of domestic abuse and whether the numbers spiked when Rangers and Celtic play each other, as they will in Glasgow on Sunday.
West Dunbartonshire has the worst figures in Scotland for wife (husband and partner) beating.
Cllr Lennie described it as “a blight on our society which is likely to go up when the ‘Bigot Brothers’ meet on Sunday”.
He was informed his assertion did not stack up alongside the facts and that the spikes in violence were at times such as Christmas and New Year, much as they have always been.
Cllr Marie McNair said: “We have checked the details and this is correct. There is no increase in the number of women and children going into Woman’s Aid refuges when there’s a football match.”
Danny’s phone rang during the meeting and played loud music which I am certain was not a marching song.
Thank God, the council meeting takes place just once a month. Labour must do better when the teams meet at the new Burgh Hall in September.
- The words about freedom of expression above and the right to express one’s opinions should be a given in every society, including West Dunbartonshire.