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‘Gloves are off’ in Westport political row

Martin Keane
Cllr Martin Keane.

‘Gloves are off’ in Westport political row

Cross-party cooperation stumbles spectacularly

Neill O’Neill

ONE of the hallmarks of Westport’s recent coronation as the best town in Ireland to live was the ability of the nine elected representatives of the local town council to cast aside party politics and unite and work together for the good of the town and community.
In the same week then, that this unique spirit of cooperation was lauded across the front of The Irish Times on two occasions, it is deeply ironic that Westport Town Council became embroiled in one of their most acrimonious disputes for many years.
The seemingly simple task of electing a Leas-Cathaoirleach to act when required as a deputy for Cathaoirleach Ollie Gannon has led to a deepening rift across party lines, with accusations of politicising the chamber and disregarding a long-established precedent of Westport Town Council coming from all sides.
Prior to the AGM, Councillor Martin Keane says he engaged in dialogue with Cllr Ollie Gannon about becoming his Leas-Cathaoirleach. The indication to him, he felt, was that this would happen.
“I’d have been honoured to serve with Cllr Gannon, over the past six months we discussed it and pledged we’d work together,” he told The Mayo News.
However, Cllr Michael McLaughlin said his party (Fine Gael) were never canvassed by Cllr Keane regarding the role.
“How can you become Leas-Cathaoirleach when many of the people who must vote on the issue have received no contact from you on the subject?” he asked.
Cllr Keane argued this was not the case.
“For Fine Gael to say that they weren’t asked about me and the position of Leas-Cathaoirleach prior to the AGM is ridiculous. I confided in Ollie and I have full confidence in him that he brought that message to them.
“Fine Gael say politics doesn’t come into the chamber but they brought it in at the AGM, and they used their majority to push it through. Fine Gael want everything, well they got everything and good luck to them. That is not what people in this community want. Fine Gael got five seats last time (local elections in 2009) based on a lot of promises, it’s hard to say if they are sticking to them but I doubt they’ll get five seats in the next local elections.
“I am disappointed on behalf of the people of the community by the way this turned out but I am not surprised. I never received support from Fine Gael to become Cathaoirleach. The year I was made Cathaoirleach, Margaret Adams and Brendan Mulroy of Fianna Fáil proposed me and seconded me and I was supported by Dave Keating (Sinn Fein) and Keith Martin (Labour) on the night.”

Fine Gael councillor, Christy Hyland, accused his Fianna Fáil colleague Margaret Adams of putting politics on the table at last week’s AGM, an accusation she firmly refutes.
“This arose out of a discussion on our wins last week in Ireland’s best place to live and best kept large town competitions,” said Cllr Adams. “We were speaking on partnership and cooperation so I asked Fine Gael to consider demonstrating this by considering the idea of sharing the role of Leas-Cathaoirleach. I knew that Cllr Keane had expressed an interest in the position so later in the meeting I proposed him for the role. With all the talk about achieving success through cooperation, I only asked Fine Gael to demonstrate this to the people by giving the position of Leas-Cathaoirleach to a member who is entrenched in the community life of the town. I only asked them to consider sharing the role at first, and only to demonstrate how well we can cooperate as a council.
“I remember when Fianna Fail had five seats on Westport Town Council, we gave the bigger role of Cathaoirleach around the chamber two years in a row to Fine Gael, which not all our councillors agreed with, but we pressed ahead with it in the interest of the town. They were also given seats on Mayo VEC and Harbour Board in good faith by us. There was always a spirit of this type of cooperation, until this council was elected. We never sought to dominate like Fine Gael are, even when we could have, we always considered Westport Town Council as working for the community. It wouldn’t have cost them anything  (Fine Gael - to have voted Cllr Keane as Leas-Cathaoirleach) and would have shown to the public that they believe in that spirit of cooperation for the betterment of the town over their own political gains.

Looking forward
Councillor Tereasa McGuire - who was appointed Leas-Cathaoirleach last week after a vote of five to three in her favour - said that the rules of twentieth century politics are no longer applicable to local government in Westport.
“Do we want to look back in anger all the time or look to the future in hope?” she replied, when asked about the new changes to a decades old pact between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to share responsibilities and the accompanying honours around the chamber. “There are more important issues in Westport at the minute than this.”
Councillor Hyland said that his party did give real consideration to the proposal last week. In reference to the 35 minutes they spent in an office discussing the matter during an adjournment of last Tuesday night’s AGM, he quipped: “we weren’t playing cards.” He further described this ‘ploy’ by Fianna Fáil to make Fine Gael look bad in the eyes of the public as “a dying kick from a dead army.”
“I go about my business to the best of my ability in an efficient and quiet manner. I recall getting a lecture about bringing politics into the chamber three years ago from Cllr Adams, this is all a game, but the gloves are off now it seems.”

Councillor Michael McLaughlin was equally firm about what he described as ‘political blackmail’.
“We had a decision made to make Tereasa Leas-Cathaoirleach in the absence of anyone else canvassing us,” he said. “What Fianna Fail did in dropping this scud at the AGM was give us a choice to either change our minds for the sake of what would appear in the media and how we’d look, thus getting us to undermine our own position and also making us look weak, or stick to  the decision and run the risk of attracting unfair criticism. Either outcome was to their advantage. You either stick to your guns or you don’t, Cllr Adams does not run the chamber and we won’t be bullied.”
Councillor McLaughlin felt the issue was further politicised in last Saturday’s Irish Times feature on Westport, where Cllr Adams discreetly used ‘that platform to further highlight the issue and the negative connotations it had for Fine Gael in Westport’.
“All the good PR for Westport, she (Cllr Adams) tried to taint it for Fine Gael, if that’s not playing the political game, what is? And why wasn’t the first citizen of Westport quoted in that article. It was because Fianna Fáil used it as a platform to further their political agenda once they had a grip on it. There was no political strategy in electing the Leas-Cathaoirleach, but to accuse anyone of not showing community spirit because they won’t reverse a long-made decision at the drop of a hat, is outrageous.”
Fianna Fáil councillor, Brendan Mulroy, disagreed saying Fine Gael untruths about representations by Cllr Keane had been shown when Cllr Gannon declared at the AGM that he did tell his party colleagues about Cllr Keane’s interest in becoming Leas-Cathaoirleach.
“We felt that Cllr Keane, being such a community man and being so actively involved in many organisations, it was only right to appoint him to the position. Fianna Fáil weren’t after it for themselves, but Fine Gael couldn’t see past that. They made a mess of it and didn’t deal with it at all.”

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