*Photograph: Eamon Ward
Elected representatives in Clare have said the standing orders in place for meetings of Clare County Council are a form of “self-gagging”.
35% of Clare Councillors signed a motion proposed by Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) at the March meeting of the local authority. The matter has since been under review with no full meeting of the Council held following the outbreak of COVID-19.
Clare’s longest serving councillor requested the amendment of standing orders to “with an objective of allowing free questions and comments on all items of public interest on the monthly agenda”. Kelly’s request was co-signed by ten representatives, Cllr Alan O’Callaghan (FF), Cllr Bill Chambers (FF), Cllr Mark Nestor (FF), Cllr Pat Daly (FF), Cllr Shane Talty (FF), Cllr Pat McMahon (FF), Cllr Joe Killeen (FF), Cllr Pat O’Gorman (FF) and Cllr PJ Ryan (IND).
All of Fianna Fáil’s councillors except Cllr Pat Hayes, Cllr Tony O’Brien, Cllr Cillian Murphy and Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy had issued their support.
Standing orders provide members with “procedures for the regulation of the business and proceedings of Council meetings,” Ann Reynolds of Corporate Services said in response to the motion. She stated that meetings were “operating very efficiently and effectively and allows for ample opportunity for debate and engagement”. Amendments must be considered by the Standing Orders Committee, Reynolds said with “due consideration” required on the implications and implementation of any changes.
“Self-gagging is rare”, Cllr Kelly declared as he outlined that instances of rubber-stamping had occurred within the Chamber. Having checked with eleven County Councils, he added, “none of them have a procedure where you can’t ask questions, it is totally unacceptable”. The Lissycasey man revealed that the inspiration for tabling the motion arose when fellow councillors were prohibited from committing on a question of his at the previous meeting. “I am advised by a few people, that the opposition against this is time, that it may cause a second meeting. We are here to do a job not rubber stamping. It is only fair we have the right to ask questions”. He stressed that it was their duty to deal with matters of the public interest, “it is our job”.
Procedure at meetings was criticised by Leas-Cathaoirleach of the Council, Cllr O’Callaghan. He recalled that he was not granted permission to speak on a question in December, “the Cathaoirleach at the time said to text him and he could try raise it”.
Clare’s youngest councillor, Cllr Nestor highlighted the need for information to be accessed. “There are some very important topics raised and it is important we are allowed ask questions on them”. Cllr McMahon called for “common sense” to be applied with others speaking up in favour expressing their satisfaction the matter would go before the committee.
Little success would be obtained from a change in procedure, Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) maintained. “It won’t achieve a lot only discussions. The purpose of meetings is to make decisions not discuss things. There is no point spending three hours discussing it and no action coming out of it”.
Since 2004, Cllr Gerry Flynn (IND) has been Chair of the Standing Orders committee. He claimed the motion as written was “unworkable”. Flynn said it was three years since the last “tweak” of standing orders. “There are two types of motion and it’s simple, if a member frames it as a question they will get a reply and no debate. I regret what Cllr PJ Kelly said that members rubber stamp something from officials. That scurrilous remark should be withdrawn”.
Cathaoirleach, Cllr Colleran-Molloy confirmed the motion had been altered and requested that Cllr Kelly submit the written amendment.
“I was requested to withdraw a remark, I’ve no notion, I will repeat it, there has been rubber-stamping,” Cllr Kelly remarked. He accused the Shannon representative of “defending the establishment”. “If it comes back and answer is not sufficient, be ready for surprises. I stand for accountability, I will challenge anybody who denies that”.
Flynn reminded Kelly that the Standing Orders Committee is comprised of two representatives each from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Technical Group. “It is a non paying position, I’ve been doing it for 16 years, I’m happy to do it but if Cllr Kelly wants to go back to the bad old days where it took two or three days to complete the agenda, he is welcome to it”.
“It is so annoying to hear mention of this echnical group, I’ve never been to any meetings, I would like one to be held,” Cllr Roisin Garvey (GP) commented and said that the only contact she has from members of the technical group is when they want something prior to a vote.
An update on the review is to be detailed at the next full meeting of the County Council.