Moyle twins with Gaza

Councillor McShane (left) at the twinning

Councillor McShane (left) at the twinning

One of Northern Ireland's smallest towns has officially twinned with Gaza City, after months of political argument.

The chairman of Moyle District Council attended a ceremony in the Palestinian city on Monday night.

Moyle, in County Antrim, has a population of 15,000 and is home to the world-famous Giant's Causeway. Councillors have been discussing the possibility of twinning for more than a year, and finally passed a motion last month.

Councillor Padraig McShane arrived in Gaza on Wednesday last week to embark on an eight-day visit. He met Hamas officials and visited medical facilities and schools before attending the ceremony. A Moyle Peace Park will reportedly be built in Gaza as part of the agreement.

Cllr McShane had initially proposed the twinning after taking part in a mission to deliver medical aid to the Palestinian city as a supporter of the Viva Palestina movement.

He held the casting vote last month when seven nationalist councillors voted in favour of the twinning, and six unionist councillors and one independent rejected it.

The Ulster Unionist councillor, Joan Baird, told colleagues who backed the twinning that it was "a disgrace". She said residents now joked that signs which featured an Irish fiddler, welcoming visitors to Moyle, could be interpreted as showing a man "holding a rocket-launcher".

The "overt political move" would damage tourism in the area and act as a "millstone around our necks", she said.

Cllr Baird failed in an attempt to overturn the decision during a follow-up meeting last week.

Councillors spent hundreds of pounds seeking legal advice while arguing over the implications for local residents. They were advised by the council's chief executive that the government had offered no definitive answer on the legal position.

Northern Ireland Assembly member David McIlveen, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said he supported colleagues who had asked the Northern Ireland Equality Commission to investigate the twinning.

Last updated: 6:31pm, April 4 2012