Councillors shrug off criticism of 'junkets'

UNDETERRED by nationalist allegations of junketeering, Unionist members of Belfast's controversial Unionist-controlled council are once again packing their bags for foreign parts.

So many Unionist councillors are due to go abroad over the next two months that Sinn Fein has, in a sarcastic jest, asked the Government to appoint a commissioner to handle the city's affairs in their absence.

One symbol of the alleged extravagance is next month's visit of the chairman of the parks committee, Margaret Crooks, to Hong Kong for a week-long conference on the environment.

The conference will feature lectures on subjects such as the Chinese lore of fung shui (in which it is thought places exert power over people) and the restoration of the Malaysian rainforest.

According to the programme, Mrs Crooks will be invited on to a 'luxurious air-conditioned vessel for a cruise through the harbour while the night falls over the South China Sea. 'Unlimited free drinks and relaxing live music are available'.

Critics say such visits are inappropriate when the council faces cutbacks and redundancies. Eyebrows were raised when Mrs Crooks told a local newspaper: 'I work hard as a chairman of a committee, so there is nothing wrong with playing hard.'

Asked about this remark, she told the Independent: 'I said it in a joke. It has been repeated so often that it really is no longer relevant.

'I can't see the point in asking all these questions because people have been going on conferences for years and years.'

Mrs Crooks, asked about the relevance of rainforests to Belfast, replied: 'It is a good thing for people to know what has happened in other parts of the world. It can be a lesson to the rest of us not to make any mistakes.'

Our own government has sent money to help restore the rainforests in South America, for example. Everyone is interested in global problems now.'

Critics of the trips abroad complain not only that there are too many of them, but also that Unionists maintain a near-monopoly on such visits. Of the 88 trips outside Northern Ireland in the last financial year, only five were allocated to non-Unionist members.

Up to 17 councillors are to visit Brussels in a few weeks' time, while five will fly to Seville and Barcelona next month. Last year the trips cost pounds 86,000.

Mrs Crooks, asked how much her visit to Hong Kong would cost, said: 'I don't know. I didn't ask.'

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