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Council enforces ban so referendum groups can't use community venues for public meetings

The council said this is a long-standing policy, but it recently contacted councillors to remind them of its existence after a public meeting in Baldoyle.

Image: Niall Carson/PA

A LOCAL AUTHORITY in Dublin has been criticised for enforcing a policy banning the use of community halls for political gatherings, as referendum campaign groups attempt to find venues for public meetings.

The issue was raised recently by Social Democrats councillor Cian O’Callaghan in the Fingal area of Dublin.

Local residents in Baldoyle who are involved in the Repeal campaign recently held a public meeting in a community hall and O’Callaghan said councillors were later made aware of the policy banning these kinds of meetings.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he said he believes there may have been complaints to the council about the use of the hall by this residents group.

The policy states that ‘council-supported facilities’ shall not be used for political gatherings, rallies or assemblies of more than ten people.

O’Callaghan said this means the policy could be applied not just to council-owned properties, but any facility that receives funding from the local authority.

“The hall in Baldoyle is owned by the council, but it’s managed by a board and manager – the day-to-day running isn’t done by the council at all. Funding provided by the council is quite small and they do a lot of fundraising themselves to keep things going.

The question here is: ‘What is political and what’s not?’ At what point does it go from a residents meeting to a political meeting – who decides that? It’s a grey area and there are meetings on other issues that could then fit into that as well. It could make it difficult for a community to gather to discuss a local issue.

He said the Baldoyle meeting was an “open public meeting aimed at residents and anyone who wanted to hear from the Yes side why they were advocating a Yes vote”.

“It was a mix of people who were Yes supporters and also undecided people.”

The councillor said meetings of these kinds by both sides of the campaign would be important in the run up to the referendum to help voters make an informed decision.

“One of my neighbours was saying to me that she’d love to go to a Yes meeting and a No meeting to hear both sides and then make her mind up.

“It is essential in a democracy that people of different viewpoints have space to engage in debate and discussion and have the freedom to assemble and associate,” O’Callaghan said.

‘Mistaken’

Fingal County Council said this policy is “of long-standing and has been in place throughout campaigns for referenda, general, bye and local elections over many years”.

“The policy would be familiar to councillors, to those involved in the management and operation of the centres and to the communities and groups that use them. The policy pre-existed the current formal publication (2014) and any impression that this is a new policy is mistaken.

Such policies are also applied to libraries and other public buildings in the ownership/control of the council. The policy is designed to ensure that publicly-owned facilities provided for all of the community are not used for political purposes or to promote one political view over another.

O’Callaghan said he was not aware of this policy and he has been on the council for nine years. He does not believe the council ever approved these restrictions and he plans to raise the issue at the next council meeting in early May.

However, in the interim, he said this will “cause problems for the referendum campaign as groups will find it difficult now to get venues”.

Fine Gael TD for Fingal Ted Leddy said he did not personally agree with the council’s policy of not allowing these venues to be used for political debate, but he said he noted that it was a long-standing policy.

“So if anybody on either side of the referendum is trying to make the point that authorities are trying to stymie debate on one side or another, they are just wrong. Some people love in this referendum on both sides, to peddle conspiracy theories.”

Leddy said he had not been aware of this long-standing policy before this week and would support a review of the rules if it is raised at the next council meeting.

Undecided voters

TheJournal.ie asked a number of other councils around the country, whether they had similar policies in place.

Dublin City Council said its approach is that “the buildings are community buildings and should be available for public meetings”.

“Many such meetings take place year round and each centre makes it own decision based on availability.”

In fact O’Callaghan’s party colleague councillor Gary Gannon held one of these meetings yesterday morning in the Macro community resource centre in Dublin’s north inner city.

A leaflet for this meeting stated that Gannon, who is advocating for a Yes vote, would be there, along with a number of experts, to answer any questions people had.

“This will be an entirely respectful space and this session is aimed at people who aren’t fully decided on how they might vote in the referendum and would like some more information,” it said. “We aren’t looking for a rally or an argument and we respect the fact that people might hold different views to ourselves on the issue.”

When asked about its policy in relation to public meetings ahead of the referendum, Cork County Council said any decision on banning events “would have to be taken by full council”.

“No motion of this nature has been proposed at this stage.”

A spokesperson for Kilkenny City and County Council said it does not own any community halls and therefore does not have control over them.

Both Donegal County Council and Galway City Council said they do not have a policy in place in relation to this matter.

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