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Seamus Treanor. Monaghan County Council
Seamus Treanor

SIPO finds against Monaghan councillor who published allegedly 'racist' election leaflet

Cllr Seamus Treanor was found to have contravened six elements of the Code of Conduct for councillors.

THE STANDARDS IN Public Office Commission (SIPO) has found against a Monaghan councillor for Code of Conduct breaches.

Investigations into the Code of Conduct breaches began after complaints were filed over an election flyer that contained, according to the complainants, allegedly “racist, dangerous and xenophobic” material.

SIPO found that Independent Cllr Seamus Treanor breached the ethical framework for county councillors, as well as the Local Government Act 2001 by publishing the election leaflet ahead of the 2019 Local Elections.

In a report published today, following a hearing that took place on 1 November last year, SIPO found against Cllr Treanor in six contraventions of the Local Government Act 2001.

SIPO is the watchdog that sets out standards of conduct for public officials.

In total, there were four complaints submitted to Monaghan County Council in relation to the election leaflet.

These complaints were then sent to SIPO, with a preliminary inquiry being carried out by Mark Shanahan of SIPO’s complaints and investigations unit, with the investigation beginning on 25 November 2019.

An opinion was then delivered by Shanahan in August 2020 that there was a prima facie case to sustain the complaint that there was a contravention of Part 15 of the Local Government Act.

This lead to the commission formally determining whether the Code of Conduct was breached in a number of ways.

Among the breaches examined by SIPO was whether Treanor did not “act in a way that the serves local authority and its people conscientiously” and whether he did not “seek to ensure that your conduct did not bring the integrity of your office or of local government into disrepute”.

While Cllr Treanor did not speak during the hearing held in November, he was represented by counsel.

Speaking on behalf of Cllr Treanor, Barry Healy argued that election leaflets could not breach the Code of Conduct for a councillor, as canvassing and creating leaflets was not part of the work of a councillor.

“We submit that in no circumstances can canvassing be considered a function of a county councillor. Secondly, I think I’m right to say that my friend has confirmed that there has been no criminal complaint made against Mr. Treanor, so in those circumstances he’s completely innocent, ” Healy said during the hearing.

In the report, the commission said that it considered all public pronouncements made by local councillors in the context of an upcoming election are within the scope of matters affecting local authority business.

“In issuing printed material setting out his views on matters of public interest, Councillor Treanor was stating how he conducted himself in relation to those issues and how he intended to continue to conduct himself if re-elected,” reads the SIPO report.

“This sharing of views and positions with the electorate is a part of the functions of a councillor and cannot be excised therefrom on the basis that it occurred in the context of an election.”

The report also says that in the run-up to an election, electoral consequences of decisions made by councillors will always be on the forefront of councillors minds, but that this cannot mean that actions at that time can be split between what they call ‘functions’ and ‘canvassing’.

The commission also states that there is a danger in allowing councillors to breach the Code of Conduct by labelling an action as ‘canvassing’, saying that it would leave the Code of Conduct “entirely undermined”.

For these reasons, the Commission does not accept the submissions of Councillor Treanor’s solicitor to the effect that the leaflet the subject of this complaint was outside the scope of the provisions of the Local Government Act and the Code of Conduct for Councillors.

The report also reads that while it acknowledges councillors rights to free speech, that right is “subject to public order and morality and cannot be presumed to extend to the freedom to publicise inaccurate statements targeting particular groups of people”.

The commission says that the Oireachtas has regulated the actions of local representatives and requires them to have high ethical standards, under the Code of Conduct and Part 15 of the Local Government Act.

Leaflet claims

The commission also ruled on several of the claims that were made by Cllr Treanor within the election leaflet.

The first claim was that 92% of refugees are “deemed to be bogus”, that they “abuse our free legal aid system” and that they are “criminals coming into this country without background checks”.

The report determined that relevant figures from the Department of Justice do not support Cllr Treanor’s claims, and that by using terms like “bogus”, “abuse” and “criminals”, he was deliberately using emotive, open-ended accusatory language without references to sources or proof.

His claim that people entering the state from another EU country “can claim benefits after 72 hours”, was found to be without foundation and intended to cause anger by the commission.

Cllr Treanor’s objection to what he called “unfair allocation fo 22 houses to economic migrants last year in County Monaghan on the instructions of the Department of Justice” on the basis that it pushed people on the housing waiting list off and “houses were allocated to migrants who never spent a day on the housing waiting list”, was shown to be inaccurate by the commission.

According to the commission, this had the effect of demonising an identifiable group of people and generating grievances within another group of people.

The Commission considered this inaccuracy to be particularly egregious, given the proximity of the issue to Monaghan County Council, the ease with which Councillor Treanor could have ascertained the true position and the inflammatory creation of a “them versus us” narrative.

Overall findings

Overall findings by the commission found that “Councillor Treanor failed to keep faith with the public trust, or to observe the highest ethical standards” by issuing the leaflet.

“The public has a right to trust that its local representatives will not spread inaccurate information unfairly targeting particular groups of people. In this instance, Councillor Treanor breached that trust and fell significantly below the standard the public would expect of him.”

The commission also found that Cllr Treanor brought both his office and Monaghan County Council into disrepute by publishing the leaflet.

“The respect held by the public for the office of county councillor and for the local authority as an organisation is, in the opinion of the Commission, in danger of being seriously diminished and damaged when a sitting councillor issues leaflets such as this.

The Commission is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that these contraventions of s. 169(3) of the Local Government Act were committed recklessly. On the basis of the evidence, Councillor Treanor must have foreseen the risk that issuing the leaflet, in the manner in which it was worded, would amount to a failure to comply with these ethical requirements, but proceeded to issue it nonetheless.

Cllr Treanor was also have found to have failed to maintain “proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest” by publishing the leaflet, and that he did not act in good faith by publishing it.

“The statements contained in the leaflet were in writing, printed and distributed. They were not off-the-cuff statements made in the heat of a debate. They were deliberate and considered and were designed to pit one group of the community against another.”

The commission found that, due to their nature, these contraventions of the Code of Conduct are not continuing.

The SIPO commission is made up of six members and is chaired by a former judge of the High Court. 

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