Newry and Mourne councillors accused of "wilful misconduct"

The BBC are reporting that the local government auditor has accused members of Newry and Mourne District Council of wilful misconduct, after they ignored legal advice following accusations of discrimination brought by William Frazer of FAIR. The Council lost the court case.

According to the BBC, the auditor has recommended that the individual councillors should pay the resulting legal bill [which seems to work out at £10,000 each(?)], rather than the Council – and all the local rate-payers – but the UUP’s Danny Kennedy wants the councillors concerned barred from office as well. The councillors have denied the charge of wilful misconduct and have until the end of the month to appeal the ruling. But, if they have ignored legal advice in this case then, IMO, barring them from office would be wise move – for all their constituents.

  • fair_deal

    The success of this legal case should be promoted more to show equality legislation works for everyone.

    Was there not a case in the 1980’s that Unionist councillors in Craigavon where disbarred after denying the GAA use of council grounds or something (although I think the amount of money involved was higher)?

  • garret

    I am sceptical about this and assume the result will be overturned on appeal.

  • peteb

    While I agree with your point, fair-deal…

    It’s worth noting that the councillors concerned deny the charge of wilful misconduct and will, more than likely, appeal the ruling.

  • peteb

    garret

    Do you mean the court case or the auditor’s findings?

    My reading of the BBC report is that the court case has been decided.

  • fair_deal

    Peteb

    1. I specifically referred to the legal case (which was lost) not the local auditor’s decision.
    2. I asked the question about Craigavon not so much out of comparison but to see if someone could confirm or deny it? (Memory isn’t what it was)

  • finn69

    bit concerned at FAIR and the GAA been compared – but then again this is slugger

  • fair_deal

    As the song says dry your eyes mate.

    Both are organisations were subjected to discrimination, sought legal resolve and won. What is the problem?

  • peteb

    fair_deal

    Yes, I know you did.. and I wasn’t implying otherwise.. but the issue of barring the councillors from office would depend on the individual councillors being responsible.. and that relies on the ruling from the auditor.

    Can’t help on the Craigavon reference.. sorry.

    finn69

    The court ruling in this case has been made. Discrimination is the issue here and whoever exercises it should be sanctioned.

  • Traditional Unionist

    Unionist Cllr’s in Lisburn were fined a couple of hundred in 85/6 when they refused to perform their functions in protest at the AIA. Alderman Close took that case.

  • fair_deal

    Peterb

    fair enough

  • finn69

    can’t believe that i’m been dragged into a debate on sl(Unionist)gger, but peteB there are major differences between both organisations.

    FAIR is known as a group that has a habit of denouncing innocent catholics as terrorists the other is a sporting organisation whose members have been murdered even though they are innocent people playing a sport.

    Does the world really need a group like this that still tries to find a hierarchy in death? Don’t think so.

    [Ed] Finn, I’m leaving this discription of yours in, though please note, making unsubstantiated claims without backing it up with either quotation or proof is tantamount to playing the man rather than the ball.

  • James Orr

    Finn

    I suspect FAIR would regard themselves in very similar language to your description of the GAA:

    “…organisation whose (family) members have been murdered even though they are innocent people…”

  • Chris Gaskin

    I suspect this will be overturned on appeal

  • Davros

    I suspect this will be overturned on appeal

    I sincerely hope so Chris as, knowing people from South Armagh, if it’s not we’ll never hear the end of it ! They’ll be worse than the English about 1966 and the World Cup! LOL

  • Chris Gaskin

    I would just refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do?

  • finn69
  • Jimmy_Sands

    Who mentioned a fine? FAIR have been awarded their costs and the auditor has recommended that the people responsible for the decision not be permitted to pass the bill on to their voters.

    As to what they can do, they could copy Shirley Porter I suppose and go on the lam. A worthy role model indeed.

  • Traditional Unionist

    “I would just refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do?”

    Issue an arrest warrant and throw you in jail for a week. Three days for good behaviour.

  • Davros

    Clay Cross and Liverpool.

    Surcharged

  • Chris Gaskin

    Issue an arrest warrant and throw you in jail for a week. three days for good behaviour.

    Sounds good, better that than to acknowledge FAIR.

  • Bored

    The case wasn’t heard – it was SETTLED – there was no judicial finding of discrimination.

  • Gonzo

    Is that a valid reason for denying him the use of public facilities though?

  • Joseyboy

    On what discriminatory criteria were the allegations based – religious? political belief?

  • tom

    Just to point out to some of the posters here that they are confusing FAIR and FAIT – Craigavon unionist councillors were fined and disbarred from office over the St Peter’s GAA incident.

  • Ricardo

    This topic has gone a bit wayward, but hardly surprising.

    The councillors were daft to ignore the legal advice. They can hardly be shocked at this ruling. Those auditors will always get you in the end.

  • Ricardo

    Joseyboy

    ‘On what discriminatory criteria were the allegations based – religious ? political belief ? Either way it tends to further demonstrate that those FAIR punters are little other than a bunch of opportunist money-mad bigots and have no interest, at all, in justice for the victims of violence as a matter of principle. They are transparent propagandists who are shaking down the public purse.’

    Not quite sure how you drew that conclusion. The councillors stated ‘local opposition’ to refuse the premises to FAIR, which translates as ‘because you are a prod’.

  • davidbrew

    “I would just refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do?”

    ..in which Mr Gaskin shows yet again that it’s time to change his degree course, if he really doesn’t understand the law. As free advice, whilst he and ill informed others cannot libel an organisation, I suspect his defamatory comments about FAIR might be better removed from this thread.

    Craigavon had numerous councillors barred from holding office for several years after they were found guilty of wilful misconduct in the case fair-deal mentions. if I recall correctly it didn’t help when one claimed God had told him to reverse an earlier decision. Limavady Councillors were surcharged in the early 1990s after a Fair Employment Tribunal held they had not followed their own legal advice.

    The word is “wilful”- i.e. knowing what they were doing was illegal, presumably in the light of legal advice, and so deliberately jeopardising ratepayers’ money.

    Rates are what grownups pay BTW Mr Gaskin. And discrimination isn’t a one way street- as you might find if you study the allocation of houses in Newry UDC in the Stormont era.

    Oh, and they might find the time in clink could be rather longer than a week…time for someone to start write a ballad methinks. “The Boys of the Old Council” has a ring to it.

  • fair_deal

    Joseyboy

    The case was taken on the basis of religious and political discrimination. They had asked to use an office in the community centre for an afternoon a week, so that their advice worker could provide support for victims. The Council refused access to their facilities.

    “They are transparent propagandists who are shaking down the public purse.”

    Relatives for Justice have now left the building.

    Bored

    “I sat beside him once”

    Oh my how ever did you endure being in the presence of someone you disagree with, the agony.

    “I personally wouldn’t give him permission to hold a meeting in the compost heap at the bottom of my garden”

    Nice to see that human rights only apply to people you like.

    “the ring tone on his mobile was ‘the Sash’ – true”

    So what? Has this become a crime yet?

    Some of this also smacks of ball not man.

  • Mick

    FD, Give me a bit of time. There’s been way too much man playing on this thread. I’m trying to remove it as fast as I can. Not so much for legal reasons, mostly because a lot of it comes under the heading of political gibberish!

  • fair_deal

    Mick

    The ball not man wasn’t intended as a jibe at you, just an attempt at a subtle reminder to contributors of the groundrules for the site.

  • Bored

    ‘Is that a valid reason for denying him the use of public facilities though ?’

    Gonzo – eh, yes it is, actually. Councillors have a discretion in this regard. Frazer sued them because he claimed that the discretion was exercised against his group purely because of their Protestantism. Personally I think that the Council were bonkers to have settled the matter.

  • Bored

    [Ed] RED CARD Matey!

  • Jo

    Is Chris a law student? Amazing comment if thats the case.

  • Young Fogey

    Was there not a case in the 1980’s that Unionist councillors in Craigavon where disbarred after denying the GAA use of council grounds or something

    Yes. St. Peter’s GAA Club was refused use of council facilities. A huge number of councillors – 9 off the top of my head – were disbarred in the mid-80s (86? 87?) but in many cases their wives were nominated to replace them, which is why Craigavon had an unusually large proportion of female councillors for a long time)

  • Bored

    Jo – yes, he would appear to be. Click on the link to his blogspot. Oh dear …as somebody who is an Irish Republican it, for me, has to rank as one of the most cringeworthy spectacles ever.

  • Bored

    Sorry Ed, wasn’t trying to be fractious – somebody sent me the link this morning and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thought that fellow sluggers might have been interested, though I can see how, to put it mildly, it’s a tricky subject.

  • Jo

    What were the councillors thinking of?

    Theres no way the ratepayers of N & M (I am one of them!) should be passed this bill for blatantly ignoring legal advice. Whatever people personally think of FAIR its not a valid reason for breaking the law. It would appear to be more and more an exact corollary of the Craigavon scenario – peoples personal prejudice against an organisation causing political and legal embrassment.

  • Occasional Commentator

    While I am interested in the rights and wrongs of the case or those involved in the case, I won’t comment because I don’t know much about it.

    I just think it’s mad that elected officials can be sacked by some jumped up bureaucrat. Imagine the uproar (not to mention riots) if this sort of thing happened to an MP?

    If these councillors have screwed up then the electorate should decide. The council should pay the bills, just as any other legislature would if it lost a court case. If the legal bill puts up the rates, then it will get the electorate interested.

    Any legislature of any kind should be solely accountable to it’s electorate. If you don’t trust the council and it’s electorate to take responsibility, then why not call for their abolition.

  • Mick

    Bored, I minded to take the unprecidented step of suspending the Red Card.

    I don’t like red carding people, but also don’t like having to spend a morning having to make up for others’ thoughtless disregard for our only rule: play the ball, and not the man!

    Now please, play on (cleanly)!

  • DerryTerry

    OC, spot on as regards the role of councillors and councils. If they were offered legal advice or a legal opinion they are entirely witin their rights to conclude that they disagree with the advice offered and act accordingly.

    If somewhere down the line they are found to have got it wrong then so be it. Mistakes are made in all walks of life and we get on with it. Democracy, whist not perfect, is better than the alternatives.

    At least these councillors were elected and many will stand again, unlike all these unknown quangos and advisory bodies that make so many decisons behind closed doors and are accountable to no one.

  • Davros

    they are entirely witin their rights to conclude that they disagree with the advice offered and act accordingly.

    Should they not face the consequences for their actions then ?

  • Jo

    OC:

    MPs are not generally responsible for the administration of facilities. If they were, they might be expected to follow legal advice on equality in access and treatment.

    If elected representatives exercise *discretion* as it is their right to do – it is the citizens right to question the lawfulness of influencing factors on that exercise of their right.

  • PS

    I think people should look at the excellent record of the councillors in Newry and Mourne with regard to power sharing before they try to condemn them over this incident. I can’t imagine that if the DUP and UUP were in a similar position of strength that there would only be 2 nationalist councillors in a Council term.

    It seems that, according to the law, they made an error of judgement in this case. Mr Frazer’s group is hardly the most inclusive but he is entitled to tell his very biased side of the story.

  • Jo

    “he is entitled to tell his very biased side of the story.”

    ..no, he is entitled to equality of treatment.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Davros,
    All politicians should fact the consequences of their actions. But it should be the electorate that decides, and they shouldn’t have to pay the bill personally.

    Should every MP that’s ever voted for a law that’s been struck down in Europe or elsewhere be fired and required to pay the legal bill?

  • Chris Gaskin

    Can I ask the Mod why my comment was edited?

    My comment wasn’t libelous or is now the pratice to remove all comments that Brew takes exception to?

    “Is Chris a law student? Amazing comment if thats the case.”

    Yes, why is my comment amazing?

  • Jo

    Chris, Davidbrew answered your facetious point at 9:41. Nothing to add.

  • Chris Gaskin

    My comment was not defamatory as Brew suggests Jo.

    I posted a valid point, it was tounge-in-cheek but it is also, IMHO, true.

  • DerryTerry

    Davros, where mistakes are made they have to be rectified and those responsible have to be held to account.

    However, and with the greatest respect to all lawyers and aspiring lawyers out there, i would rather be ruled by elected reps who make mistakes rather than lawyers who believe they are infallible.

  • peteb

    The point of wilful misconduct is that it isn’t a ‘mistake’.

    As for the claim that ‘the people should decide’… *shakes head*

    It’s beyond time for accountability beyond the ballot box.

  • DerryTerry

    peteb.

    It was the auditor who made the claim of wilful misconduct. If this is based on the fact that the Council lost the court case it seems a case of hindsight being 20/20.

    Personally I’m interested in your idea of accountablity beyond the ballot box. Who or what should hold elected reps to account, what qualifications should they have and how would they be appointed?

    Again, democracy isn’t perfect but its better than the alternatives, and i include amongst those alternatives rule by quango.

  • Jo

    Local Govt. audit function provides an audit assurance service to local authorities in the same way as the National Audit Office can check on the propriety of decisions and spending made elsewhere in government.

    It is a powerful function and rightly so as it aims to ensure that tax- and rate-payers money is used to provide the service and those spending it are held to account – ultimately, to Parliament or, when we get back to it, the Assembly.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Jo, my point is that the National Audit Office can’t sack MPs (or sack whole governments). All they can do is embarrass them and we hope that the MP will resign if appropriate.

    I’m all for auditing, accountability and following legal advice, but only the electorate should be allowed to sack elected representatives who have made an incorrect decision. The councillors should be punished for this shambles by the electorate, and nobody else.

    peteb said:

    As for the claim that ‘the people should decide’… *shakes head*

    It’s beyond time for accountability beyond the ballot box.Just in case I didn’t make myself clear (and I’m not saying peteb has misread my comment), I’m not suggesting that the local electorate should decide which groups have access to which resources. It’s just that I want local government to be run on exclusively democratic lines ** ducks ** !

  • peteb

    Despite what some parties would like everyone to believe.. accountability beyond the ballot box is an integral part of any democratic system.

  • Occasional Commentator

    peteb,
    In what way are MPs accountable beyond the ballot box? The House Of Commons can suspend an MP, but at least that suspension is decided by other elected people and not quangos.

    I agree entirely that democracy isn’t the be all and end all. Some would point to the common law, independent judges, and even the monarchy as having played their part. But I still can’t see any justification for allowing an unelected quango (who appoints these people, an accountable Direct Rule minister I suppose?) to hire and fire elected representatives.

  • Occasional Commentator

    That was meant to be “Unaccountable Direct Rule minister”.

  • steve48

    Councillors by being elected take on the responsibilty of acting on the advice provided by professionals, planners, environmental health officers, building control officers and yes on the odd occasion legal advisors.

    Where they ignore professional advice they lose the protection of the body corporate.

  • peteb

    Keeping to the topic of this thread.. if I may.. while acknowledging that this is not, necessarily, what I could describe as my area of expertise..

    There is a legally binding code of conduct for elected representatives.. the auditors can, I believe, disqualify individual councillors for specified breaches of this code (barring them from holding office for a period of time).

    In doing so they, themselves, must abide by the terms laid down by law.. and if the councillors wish to challenge that decision they can do so by way of the courts.

    I think this section of the Local Government Act(Northern Ireland) 1972 may be relevant.

    82.4

    (4) If a certificate under this section relates to a loss or deficiency caused by the wilful misconduct of a person who is, or was at the time of such misconduct, a member of the council concerned and the amount certified to be due from him exceeds £2,000, that person shall be disqualified for being elected or being a member of a council for the period of five years beginning on the ordinary date on which the period allowed for bringing an appeal against a decision to give the certificate expires or, if such an appeal is brought, the date on which the appeal is finally disposed of or abandoned or fails for non-prosecution.

    I’m more than willing to be corrected on that if wrong.

  • aquifer

    An early report on Housing Discrimination noted that both Unionist and Nationalist councils discriminated, often in favour of family connections. Housing Need was much greater on the Nationalist side, and some councils were gerrymandered in favour of Unionists, so it became a much bigger issue for nationalists.

    As a non nationalist or unionist, I would welcome discrimination being rooted out completely.

    e.g. A political labour group, consisting of Belfast ratepayers, would be denied use of Belfast City Council Facilities, but parties with councillors get to use them free all the time.

  • Harboy

    “I would just refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do?”

    As free advice, whilst he and others cannot libel an organisation, I suspect his defamatory comments about FAIR might be better removed from this thread.”

    You can libel some organisations as well as individuals (though perhaps not a trade union). Most people will be aware of the McLibel case where Macdonalds were the claimants and also where Greenpeace (a pressure group like FAIR) were co-claimants against The Herald in an action in 2001 which settled in the High Court.

    I see nothing overly worrying in professional ethics terms about CG’s comment about what are they going to do if the surcharge is not paid. In fact it is a question anyone advising the councllors would need to properly have regard. Though the jocular way in which is was posed might have led to the view that he was advocating that they councillors act in an unlawful way – which may or may not be the case. Gandhi was disbarred by Inner Temple for something similar I think.

    [edited for man-playing: moderator]

  • Jimmy_Sands

    As everyone seems to be a lawyer today, I’ll just point out the the McDonald suit was based on trade libel, an entirely differnet animal.

  • Chris Gaskin

    People do seem to get very worked up on this site over the most simple of questions

  • Chris Gaskin

    Jimmy is correct

    organisations can sue to protect their trading reputation however FAIR are not in that position.

  • barnshee

    The only people who are getting worked up are the councillors (and their support) who are shitting themslves at the prospect of having to put thir hands in their pockets

  • Sean Fear

    An interesting thread, which certainly has parallels on this side of the Irish Sea. The Local Government Standards Board does have power to disqualify councillors for acting (in its opinion) unethically, and has done so.

    I think it’s wrong. Councillors should be disqualified for committing serious criminal offences, but otherwise, it should be up to the voters to decide their fate.

    That’s separate from surcharging, though. Councillors are not surcharged for honest mistakes. They can be surcharged for deliberate breach of their duties, such as the Porter case. That would appear to be the case here, and IMO, is quite right.

  • Achilles

    It’s a long way down the page – anyone still reading?

    If you have to “ignore” the straightforward legal advice given, in a position of responsibility you can only do this with a strong plan “B”. I think the only issue these councillors had is their plan “B” was crap.

    You can’t give resources over to everyone who asks under threat of legal action. This case sets an important precedent for N.I. Now all councillors will be wary of such decisions. Therefore overall this is a bad day for all.

  • fair_deal

    “overall this is a bad day for all”

    How is public officials being punished for discrimation a bad day for all?

  • yerman

    Couldnt agree more fair_deal. A good day for the people of Newry & Mourne, so they dont have to see £10k of their rates flow down the SF/SDLP drain because they couldnt abide seeing someone they dont like use a hall.

    Of course Councillors are entitled to disregard any legal advice which they happen to recieve, that’s their perogative (and going by the jumped up nature of most councillors in any area I would put the house on half of them deciding that they were probably better qualified than any solicitor).

    However, should councillor/s decide to ignore professional advice given to them then they have to accept the consequences which may or may not flow from that. They voted on an issue, in the full knowledge that legally they may be on shaky ground and therefore they cannot complain when someone challenges that decision through the courts – and wins.

    But of course, we all know that its only unionists who are sectarian.

  • aquifer

    “You can’t give resources over to everyone who asks under threat of legal action.”

    Yes, although all councillors should respect the law in relation to equality, whether or not their political opposites have legal representation.