GAVAN REILLY: FG can hardly claim the high moral ground on Meath Co Council seat shenanigans

Wednesday, 3rd July, 2019 12:09pm

GAVAN REILLY: FG can hardly claim the high moral ground on Meath Co Council seat shenanigans

Cllr Sharon Keogan was elected in two electoral areas

You will have read elsewhere on these pages of the events at County Hall in Navan – and of the weird situation where Fianna Fáil councillors ended up voting against the nomination of a Fianna Fáil councillor to take the vacant seat being left by Sharon Keogan in Ashbourne.

Be clear: there’s not a soul in County Hall that doesn’t know how empty seats in county councils are filled. The practice is perfectly clear, and even defined by law: the Local Government Act 2001 outlines how if the seat was held by a member of a political party, it’s up to the party itself to decide who should fill the vacancy.

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This makes perfect sense: the only alternative would be to fill council seats through the brute force of a council by-election, in which case the seat would be automatically claimed by the ruling coalition. That would have meant that when FF’s Shane Cassells became a TD in 2016, or SF’s Joe Reilly passed away last year, their seats would have been taken over by the Fine Gael and independent coalition that ran the council at the time.

In fairness, the law does stipulate that when it’s an independent seat up for grabs, it’s supposed to be up to the full council to fill. But that’s hardly fair – it assumes independent councillors are incapable of acting as a group, or having any input in their own succession. But if an independent left-wing councillor like Alan Lawes were elected to the Dáil next year, would it be fair for Fianna Fáil to use its council clout to claim the seat for itself?

This is where the council dispute this week becomes very clear. It’s entirely plausible that Sharon Keogan could be on her way to Leinster House in the next 12 months. The obvious procedure in that case would be to let Keogan nominate her own successor. So why would that Keogan vacancy, in Laytown, be treated any differently to the one in Ashbourne?
There are certainly precedents for recruiting the ‘next best’ candidate to fill the vacant seat, as Lisa Mellor would have been – such as in 1979 when Frank Godfrey managed to win three seats on Drogheda Corporation, and handed two to the highest defeated candidate. But back then, there was no ban on the dual mandate, and there simply wasn’t a culture of having to fill vacancies, because they rarely arose. Nor was there a law to say how it should be done.

Lisa Mellor is certainly entitled to feel a little bit hard done by, having lost out in an election to a candidate who quite evidently could not take up the seat she had just won. Likewise, those in Stamullen who don’t have a councillor are also entitled to feel a bit overlooked that they remain symbolically unrepresented.

But both have been led down the garden path. The governing bloc in Meath has already been formed, and the independents would have been fully entitled to walk out if FF turned around and outvoted Keogan’s own nominee to install their own sub instead. Such an act would have led the council into near-ungovernability for the next five years.

Fine Gael might preach the moral high ground by trying to ensure the opinions of the voters of Laytown were honoured by inviting Mellor to join them in County Hall. But they’re also guilty of no small amount of shenanigans, engineering a situation where FF had little choice but to turn down one of their own. It’s exactly the same responsible approach that FF has taken to putting FG in power in Leinster House, and FG know it.

Read Gavan Reilly's column every week only in the paper