*Monday’s meeting of the local authority saw tensions raise between some councillors. 

FIANNA FÁIL COUNCILLORS silenced an attempt by an Independent councillor to get Clare County Council to publicly debate the merits of taking out a loan to acquire the four Shannon Heritage sites in the county.

At the October meeting of the County Council on Monday, elected representatives clashed amid attempts to hold a debate in a public forum following ongoing controversy over the twenty month wait to secure a transfer of the Shannon Heritage sites.

Stress levels jumped a few degrees in the Council Chamber with the Chief Executive of the local authority calling the act a publicity stunt while further accusations that a female councillor was targeted were also aired during the lengthy debate.

It followed a behind closed doors breakfast briefing on Wednesday last where senior officials in the Council told local councillors that they were contemplating pulling out of their bid to take over ownership of the sites after a Budget snub with the Government opting not to provide the requested €15m in funding to take over Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, Craggaunowen, Knappogue Castle and a retail outlet at the Cliffs of Moher.

Representative of the two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would come under a great deal of flak were the transfer of the sites to fall through. Notably, the very active social media pages of Cathal Crowe TD (FF) and Senator Timmy Dooley (FF) have not yet mentioned the latest setback for Shannon Heritage’s Clare sites.

Cllr Gerry Flynn (IND) proposed that standing orders be suspended at Monday’s meeting, for the Chief Executive of the Council, Pat Dowling to “expedite” the transfer and take out a loan to assume ownership of the sites. He detailed that the current situation was “of great concern to the public and many workers” associated with Shannon Heritage but presented “a great opportunity” to the local authority and believed an investment was “well overdue”. His call was seconded by Cllr PJ Ryan (IND)

Leas Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, Cllr Ann Norton (IND) was deputising for Cllr Tony O’Brien (FF) in the Chair. She agreed to the request and said the matter would be debated before notices of motion were heard from the floor.

Before this juncture in the meeting was reached, Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF) sought clarity on the validity of suspending standing orders, she asked if Flynn’s proposal required two or three signatures. Meetings administrator, Ann Reynolds explained that it was not presented as an emergency motion and rather a suspension of standing orders so the two signatures of Flynn and Ryan were sufficient.

Discussions between the Government, various Departments and the Council on a potential deal are “the most difficult and sensitive” stage, Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) remarked. “We’re at the risk of causing some self-harm and affecting the maximum assistance we can receive from Government. No disrespect to both signatories but we’re offside on this one”.

Unsuccessfully, Cllr Norton tried to remind the Fianna Fáil side of the Chamber that it had been agreed to discuss the item later in the meeting.

Rule 69 of standing orders stipulated that for standing orders to be suspended, a two thirds majority must support such a call, Cllr Shane Talty (FF) flagged. “With all due respect, the debate at the moment is totally out of order. The request has been accepted, what’s happening now is totally out of order,” Flynn who is Chair of the Council’s standing orders committee responded.

Talty’s observation had “merit” according to the meetings administrator. “If that was the direction of the Chair of the day then fair enough. It is disingenuous of councillors to try muzzle the debate on one of the most important issues affecting our county,” Flynn replied.

Pat Dowling chimed in to say the Council was “making every effort to expedite the transfer”. He warned that a public debate could “fuel and give some concerns to the staff. There are ongoing deliberations taking place. More time is required. I advise against any decision today to how we fund it, it could be premature and prejudicial to do that. It’s not helpful to the ongoing morale of Shannon Heritage staff”.

Referencing the Council’s preparation for its Annual Budget, Cllr Flynn said the Shannon Municipal District has received “very little expenditure” over the last eighteen years. The Shannon representative added, “we have no reason to let the Government off the hook on this, it is an opportunity we cannot miss”. Previous comparisons between the Cliffs of Moher and Shannon Heritage sites were inaccurate he felt with “TLC required” to improve the sites currently owned by the subsidiary of Shannon Airport Group. “I’m not a member of your staff Chief Executive, I’m an elected represenative, we’ve debated critical issues here in this Chamber before and this is one of the most important”.

Dowling stated, “the security of employment of staff is not at stake. This not about losing jobs. They are secure in the future of Shannon Heritage and maybe in the future of Clare County Council”.

This prompted Cllr Ryan to question if negotiations remained ongoing and if the Council had a chance to get funding to which Dowling answered “yes”. His answer led to Cllr Ryan watering down on his support for Flynn’s request.

A disappointed Flynn referenced Ryan’s “vociferous” stance on Bunratty to explain why he approached him to co-sign the request. The response issued from Dowling to the media stating that the Council would be offering no further on the comment was also criticised by Cllr Flynn who suggested the local authority was keen to keep the press out of the loop, “the media are very responsible in Clare and they best placed to give that message to the public”.

Patience was needed, Cllr Joe Killeen (FF) maintained. “We have to keep cool, work best with Government and try secure funding for the Shannon Heritage sites”.

Tensions continued to rise among Fianna Fáil representatives with Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) hitting out at the “huge implications on the provision of services” within the Council of the €15m tag associated with the sites. Taking out a loan while negotiations continues was “the height of stupidity,” the Kilkee representative commented.

“It is very unfair of Cllr Flynn to do this to you in your first full Council chairing,” Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF) said to the Deputy Mayor. She accused the Shannon man of “not honouring his own standing orders”. The Quin native said she was against the Council taking out a loan for the sites and described the debate as “entirely inappropriate”.

This was labelled by Cllr Flynn as “a disgraceful outburst”. He said he was elected to the County Council to represent the people of Clare, “I have a mandate, I would have put this forward regardless of who was in the Chair. I have no issue with the county town, the Cliffs of Moher, Vandeleur Walled Gardens or East Clare getting funding, I have an issue that I’m being denied the opportunity to request the Chief Executive to raise funds. The meeting behind closed doors totally contravened standing orders but Cllr Colleran Molloy didn’t jump up and down about that”.

Responding to this remark, Mr Dowling said Council officials have worked for the past two years “completing due diligence. Not all meetings are held in public because of that”. He said of Flynn’s proposal, “the people who have sought publicity have got it”.

Cllr Pat Hayes (FF) also suggested the proposal was a publicity stunt. “We’re in the middle of negotiations, we should not be discussing that in the middle of a public forum”.

As the first Fine Gael member to speak on the matter, Cllr Joe Cooney (FG) observed that councillors didn’t want “to be divided on this. I didn’t expect the debate would come to this. All options need to explored. Debating or voting on the situation will not help”.

Next up was Cllr Mary Howard (FG) who said Cllr Flynn “pulled a fast one” and his actions were “totally disrespectful to target Ann’s naiveite in the Chair”.

Dowling repeated, “this has been aired for twenty eight minutes, publicity has been achieved”. Flynn replied, “I don’t need notoriety”. Voting on the matter would be “divisive”, the Chief Executive cautioned, “I’m concerned people are seen as for or against”. He added, “this is good for Co Clare if we achieve a positive outlook”.

Cllr Norton then told the meeting it was “time to move on. We know it’s a sensitive issue”. Cllr Flynn said he had “no intention” of putting the fellow Independent “on any spot, you’re an experienced campaigner”. He added, “the can of worms is open now, I’ll continue as a public representative to debate this subject, it is a golden opportunity for Clare County Council to acquire what was the leading site in Clare and one of the leading sites nationally”. Cllr Norton assured the speaker “you haven’t put me in a predicament”.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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