The Mayor of Lisburn, the third largest city in Northern Ireland, Margaret Tolerton has refused to open a book of condolence after the recent passing of Nelson Mandela meaning that unlike those in Belfast City Council and Derry City Council, the people of Lisburn City will be unable to formally pay their respects to this much respected man.
To verify the story, I contacted three independent sources, two from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and one from Sinn Fein, in an attempt to gain background context and more information on a story - which on the face of it - seemed could just be another misquoted excerpt from the political rumour-mill. I wanted to verify if there existed an opposition to opening a book of condolence, and if so, why did this reluctance exist at all - it is, as one of my Alliance sources quite rightly put it, a seemingly "non controversial issue".
It is difficult to imagine the 'book of condolence' being a divisive issue, indeed, Belfast and Derry/Londonderry have both opened the books of remembrance and have subsequently attracted both the general public and high-ranking politicians, including Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. It was widely noted that the death of Nelson Mandela brought politicians together from all sides of the political spectrum - be it Unionist/Nationalist or Protestant/Catholic.
I contacted the office of the DUP Mayor asking for a response to my enquiry, and for a day, the silence was deafening. Expecting a quick reply firmly stating that my claims were unfounded and false but instead receiving no correspondence whatsoever. So, the search continued for other sources in order to clarify the situation.
Gary Spedding, former Campaigns Officer for Alliance Youth, was informed by party colleagues of Mayor Tolerton's decision not to open a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela. Mr Spedding stated: "Now is a time to allow the many members of the public who continue to revere and be inspired by Nelson Mandela's legacy to offer their respects. If it is true that Lisburn Council won't have a book of condolences then I consider it deeply insulting and a flounderous inaction that degrades the reputation of the Council".
I contacted Cllr Brian Dornan, Group Leader of the Alliance Group for Lisburn North, who stated that most people held Nelson Mandela "in the highest of esteem". Mr Dornan had previously mentioned the topic of a book of condolence to Mrs Tolerton informally, noting that it made sense even on the basis of "accessibility" for the people of Lisburn City. During our conversation it was noted that many important world leaders and politicians openly endorsed Nelson Mandela, including President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis and the Queen. Mr Dornan stressed that his proposal was not a party initiative and just a 'general enquiry'.
Checking my email and finding it still lacking a reply from the Mayor's office I pressed on.
Cllr David Bell, Sinn Fein, had previously brought up the issue via email and phone call to the office of the Mayor. After contacting the office, Mr Bell stated: "I received a very disappointing response from the Mayors office following several attempts to contact her regarding the issue. An e-mail from her secretary very bluntly stated that the Mayor would not open a book of condolences and no reason was given".
Mr Bell noted that other councils had successfully opened books of condolence for Mandela and that the notion of remembrance should not be used as a 'political football'. "Many other councils across the country speedily opened books of condolences and as a Lisburn Councillor, I find it embarrassing that Lisburn Council has yet to do so. Many Lisburn citizens have contacted me regarding this and much like them I am confused as to why this is even an issue?" Mr Bell also praised Nelson Mandela's "reputation as a peace builder" and that "his contribution to our own peace process and reconciliation across the world, the citizens of Lisburn should be allowed to send their condolences".
A day later and after the sending of another email I finally received a reply from the office of Mayor Tolerton. It stated: "The Mayor of Lisburn, Councillor Margaret Tolerton, received a request to open a Book of Condolence for Nelson Mandela and after consideration decided not to open a Book of Condolence on this occasion".
The statement was short, and indeed, rather blunt. It raised more questions than I even had at the start of my investigation. What motivating factors were behind the 'consideration' and if not 'on this occasion', then when?
It has been claimed by other, unnamed, sources that the decision may have been influenced by recent comments made by Jim Allister, leader of the anti agreement splinter group, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Mr Allister recently stated that Mr Mandela "left a trail of victims and backed a terrorist campaign overseen by the ANC", and claimed the BBC coverage of his death was "verging on propaganda". I would not wish to speculate on motivations of those in office without evidence to back up claims. It is for this reason I contacted Diane Dodds MEP, whose offices are based in Lisburn, to attempt to get a statement and to clarify if Mrs Dodds was aware of the decision made by the Lisburn City Mayor. This reporter was swiftly guided in the direction of the DUP press office.
I have not received a response.
Reporting by: Jason Murdock