Political row over free swims

Cllr Liam Mackle
Cllr Liam Mackle

Free swimming for the disabled and unemployed has pitted nationalist against unionist on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

Sinn Fein had called for free swimming for the disabled and unemployed in line with a policy by the former Armagh City Council.

The party’s Cllr Liam Mackle said the legacy council policy had been successful and had urged that it be rolled out across the ABC borough.

At the Leisure and Community Services Committee a proposal by council officials that the unemployed and disabled be allowed free swimming on a trial basis for six months was queried by some unionists. During a lengthy debate, some unionists were dismissive of plans to allow the unemployed free swimming and also queried how disability would be defined by the council.

Speaking after the meeting Cllr Mackle said he was ‘appalled by the lack of compassion’. He expressed disappointment at unionist councillors on the Committee.

“Officers brought forward a proposal to introduce free off peak swimming for the disabled and unemployed citizens within the borough. This followed a proposal back in April from Sinn Fein as a similar scheme in Armagh Council had been very successful. The scheme which would have been for a six month pilot would have cost Council an estimated £1795.

“I am at a loss to understand the attitude of unionist Councillors.

“These are the same councillors who had no difficulty in spending £53k of ratepayers money on the Queen’s birthday yet they balk at helping the poor and disabled.

“We have seen an increase in citizens using foodbanks, the cuts to benefits will have a devastating impact on our poorest citizens.

“We, as a council, had the opportunity to at least give the vulnerable the opportunity to have free swimming.

“When you are having to make hard choices between food and heat, the chance of a free swim has the potential to offer some dignity. I am really disappointed at my unionist colleagues who time and again display disregard for our vulnerable citizens.”

However, DUP Cllr Phil Moutray defended his position stating that there were many hard working families in the borough who despite working long hours also found it difficult to afford to go swimming.

He queried the success of the scheme in Armagh and said he would be supportive of free swimming for the disabled if it encouraged them to get into sport.

Cllr Moutray said the matter was going back to officers to define disability and to look at the success or otherwise of the Armagh project.