Council attempt to ‘gag’ elected members

By Dan Walsh at Wexford County Council Meeting

The ongoing tension between Wexford County Council and the media appears to continue unabated and the issues switched from advertising and broadcast press coverage to a ‘censorship ban’ on the elected members and controlling what they can and can’t say to the followers who voted for them.

Members of Wexford County Council are unwilling to sign up to a draft social media charter for elected members and many strong views of protest were voiced when the matter came before members at yesterday’s (Monday) monthly meeting of Wexford County Council held at Carricklawn County Council Headquarters. Cathaoirleach Cllr Barbara-Anne Murphy was in the chair.

WEXFORD COUNTY COUNCIL HEADQUARTERS

The Council had issues on several occasions in the past when elected members have expressed opinions on the workings of the Council and it was felt that “the Council may benefit from more definitive regulation in the practical application of social media.”

It was agreed that the Council’s Protocol Committee put specific guidance in place “to deter members from posting to social media while whilst Council meetings were taking place.”

On October 21 2021 at a further meeting of the Protocol Committee, it was agreed that the Code of Conduct be extended to address the abuse of Wexford County Council and staff and elected members online.

Cllr Jim Codd was quickly into the debate and observed that recently the Council meetings were obsessed with dealings with the media and making national newspaper headlines and now it is about managing social media and there was a call for social media training for members!

Cllr Pat Barden was quick to pick up on the suggestion of social media training for members and he enquired if this training could be undertaken by a professional media group, and he asked if there were any such companies in the county? or by members of the Council and he also wondered where and when is this training likely to take place?

Cllr Ger Carty said he was “not interested in narratives controlled by anybody”, pointed out in no uncertain terms that he is elected by the people and he argued “this cannot continue.”

Cllr Leonard Kelly told the meeting “I have no interest in signing this.”

Cllr Lisa McDonald stated there were very few laws to protect people online and the draft laws: “I wouldn’t sign as it asks us to delete negative comments and is too much to ask of any public representative, especially those with many accounts. She also added as someone who has had a huge amount of online abuse that we have to respect opinions of others even if we disagree as long as they are not overly harmful to us. “Senator Malcolm Byrne’s Bill on online harms has been introduced to the oireachtasliaison and we should await that before going any further.”

Cllr Joe Sullivan was “uncomfortable” and said defamation and other laws were out there to deal with such issues and he added; “I believe this is not the direction the Council should be going.”

Cllr Fionntán Ó Súilleabháin had issues with ‘personal abuse’ online. Cllr Maura Bell via Zoom said she was not for signing.

Cllr Davy Hynes was far from impressed and referred to “a one-way street” approach. “They are warning us about saying certain things,” he stated.

Cllr Willie Kavanagh was determined to refer the text to the Protocol Committee. Cllr John Hegarty agreed and talked about attempts to establish a culture with a ‘tweek and change’ approach. Cllr Pip Breen saw a “need for the charter”, Cllr Michael Whelan wanted ‘the bits that suits’ left in; and Cllr Pat Barden kept asking about the details for the training course.

Communications Officer David Minogue said the findings of the Protocol Committee were about “respect for the public, the members and the staff”.

Apparently, the matter is parked for now, however, it appears that no other Council in the land has gone down this route and the catalyst for the debate is the Oneline Bullying Bill which could be light years away!

No vote was taken and it was clear that the Government party members (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) were bouncing a ball that is being bounced in a bigger court with another agenda in Government Buildings.

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