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SIPO considers whether Monaghan councillor's allegedly 'racist' leaflet breaches standards

It relates to material distributed by independent councillor Seamus Treanor ahead of the 2019 local elections.

Seamus Treanor.
Seamus Treanor.

THE STANDARDS IN Public Office Commission (SIPO) is considering alleged Code of Conduct breaches against a Monaghan councillor following complaints over an election flyer that allegedly contained “racist, dangerous and xenophobic” material. 

The remote SIPO hearing relates to material distributed by independent councillor Seamus Treanor ahead of the 2019 local elections. 

SIPO is the public watchdog which, among other functions, sets out standards of conduct for public officials.

During today’s proceedings barrister Brian Gageby, who is appearing as a legal advisor to the commission, said that Cllr Treanor “has a right to free speech” and that it was not for SIPO to determine “whether or not these views were right or wrong”. 

Instead, Gageby said the complaint alleges that the councillors’ material contained details that were “factually incorrect and misleading” and that SIPO’s “narrow purview” was to determine whether these errors were a breach of the SIPO’s Code of Conduct. 

Gageby said that SIPO will see that “the complaint in this case concerns canvassing material, and complaints were made in respect of that material that the material was racist, dangerous and xenophobic.”

“Ultimately, it will be a matter for the Chairman and the Commission to determine its views in respect of the canvassing material,” he added. 

Gageby read details from the election material at the heart of the matter in which Treanor said that he has “no problem” with people coming to Ireland “to work or start a new business providing they can pay for their own housing…..and obey our laws and customs.”

In the material, Treanor accused the “political elite in Ireland, FF, FG and SF” of having “encouraged uncontrolled migration”. 

Summarising the aspects that the six-member SIPO commission must consider, Gageby highlighted a number of claims made in Treanor’s election material. 

The case against Cllr Treanor is that there’s a number of inaccuracies in the canvassing material. And those are as follows; that it was factually incorrect and misleading in claiming that 92% of asylum seekers are deemed to be bogus. Secondly, it was legally incorrect to claim that EU migrants could claim benefits after 72 hours in Ireland. And thirdly, that it was factually incorrect and misleading in relation to the claim the 22 economic migrants were housed on the instruction of the Department of Justice.

He added: “The Commission will have to consider whether or not these errors, if proved, result in breaches of the code which are set out in the alleged statement of contraventions.”

Complaints

Four complaints relating to the leaflet were made to Monaghan County Council.

The complaints were they sent to SIPO where an preliminary inquiry was conducted by Mark Shanahan of SIPO’s complaints and investigations unit, beginning on 25 November 2019.

In August 2020, Shanahan delivered an opinion that there was a prima facie case to sustain the complaint that there was a contravention of Part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001.

SIPO’s commission is being asked to determine whether the Code of Conduct was breached in a number of ways, among them 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”.

Cllr Treanor, who was re-elected to Monaghan County Council in 2019, was present during the proceedings but did not speak, instead being represented by counsel. 

Speaking on the councillor’s behalf, Barry Healy made a number of submissions arguing that it “was not procedurally correct” that the case was being heard as a result of four complaints by members of the public and not the ethics register. 

Following a brief break to consider this question, the commission allowed the hearing to continue but asked Healy to make written submissions in this regard.

Healy also argued that an election leaflet could not breach codes of conduct for representatives because election leaflets are not part of a councillor’s role or function.  

“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.  

The hearing also heard evidence from John Murray, Director of Services, Finance, Housing & Culture in Monaghan County Council, who faced questions from both Gageby and Healy. 

Murray was asked about the claims in Cllr Treanor’s leaflet with regards to the “22 economic migrants that were housed” by the council. 

The council executive said it was correct to say that 11 houses were used to provide housing for Syrian refugees as part of the Department of Justice’s Irish Refugee Protection Programme.  

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He said it would be correct to say that “11 slots on the housing list were pushed down” as a result of this move. 

Speaking later about this, Gageby pointed out that Cllr. Treanor’s literature had referenced 22 houses and an allocation to “economic migrants”, whereas the houses in question were part of a refugee programme. 

“There seems to be an aligning, I can put it like that, of economic migrants on the one hand and asylum seekers on the other and also the suggestion that 22 houses were taken off the housing list in favor of economic migrants or refugees, as the case may be, when in fact it seems that the number was 11,” he said. 

Gageby also pointed to other “alleged inaccuracies” in the leaflet, including the claim that “92% of asylum seekers are deemed to be bogus”. 

He referenced the 2018 Annual Report on Migration and Asylum in Ireland which contained the recognition rate for asylum applications in Ireland. 

The report found that recognition rates, which refer to positive decisions, “are somewhere in the region of 85.5% at the highest although when corrected they seem to be as low as 30%”. 

In reference to Treanor’s claim about people claiming benefits in this country, Gageby said it was “legally incorrect” to say that EU migrants can claim benefits after 72 hours in Ireland. 

Representing Treanor, Healy also referenced Article 40 of the Constitution which protects the right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.

“Accordingly Under Article 40 we say that Mr. Treanor was simply asserting his rights under Article 40 and that opinions that he expresses are a matter to be corrected by his political opponents, and not by SIPO,” he said. 

Written submissions to SIPO on foot of today’s hearing are to be submitted within one week.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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