Recently-elected councillor Pat McCarthy found the inclusion of prayers as the first item on any agenda of the Wellington Town Council to be an uncomfortable anomaly. He was told he could absent himself for the first part of the business if he didn’t like it, and maybe he shouldn’t have applied to be a councillor if he wasn’t willing to take part!
Subsequently, Pat tabled a motion asking for the prayers to be an optional event prior to the agenda’d business. In support of this sensible position, Derek, as chair of the Shropshire Humanist Group, requested permission to speak in the debate.
So, Derek and myself attended the council meeting on 11th May, together with another lady who had also asked to make a statement. Prior to the meeting, the mayor explained that (interestingly) the usual half-hour for public comment had been suspended for this meeting and that if there was actually no council debate on the motion but an immediate vote called, it might be difficult for him to invite speakers from the `gallery’. However, reassured that Derek did not intend to be antagonistic and ‘bring the council into disrepute’, he promised to invoke a paragraph of standing orders which gave him the right, as Chair, to allow speakers after the vote. Re-assured, we sat down.
The meeting started not, as I had thought, with a quick prayer similar to a grace at table, but a full-blown five minutes of Church of England service with chanted responses and ending with the Lord’s Prayer in unison. That was Item 1!
Pat’s proposition was no. 21 (b) on the agenda, but they did eventually get to it. He was invited to read it. A councillor immediately shouted for a vote. Another member’s hand was up to make a statement, but she was shouted down. A vote had been called for (indeed shouted for) and if anyone tried to say anything, including the chair, they too were shouted at. A vote was taken to have a vote, seconders were found after the event and then a vote on the proposition followed hot upon its heels. Pat was not invited to speak to his motion; there was no opportunity for debate and the timid suggestion by the mayor that the outside speakers should make their statements was likewise comprehensively shouted down.
Smug with their little victory, like a gang of bullies in a playground, the opposition councillors quietly congratulated themselves on their successful intimidation. Are they so fearful of hearing that some of their colleagues and constituents may have different beliefs and world-views to theirs?
Pat’s seconder, a Muslim councillor, was unable to be at the meeting, quite possibly cowed by the thought of having to face this mindless intimidation. No wonder ‘tradition’ persists unchanged in our backwaters.
Derek wrote the following letter to the Shropshire Star:
In discussion with the Mayor elect prior to the meeting, it was agreed that any debate on Councillor McCarthy’s motion regarding prayers at Council meetings should be conducted in a manner that did not bring the Council into disrepute.
The bully boy tactics that prevented Councillor McCarthy from speaking to a motion that had been properly presented and appeared on the order paper, were a blatant denial of the fundamental right of free speech and reflected considerable discredit on those responsible.
The fact that the meeting opened with prayers that were an invocation for tolerance and understanding of those with different views, who are charged with the responsibility of making difficult decisions, added an element of farce to the proceedings. It was apparent from the display of boorish bigotry that followed that it would be more appropriate for the Councillors to recite the Queensberry rules in unison.
Chair, Shropshire Humanist Group.