Council Affairs: Democracy (not) in action

Limerick County Council Offices in Dooradoyle.

IT was French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert that said: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner,” uttered a second wise man.

Sadly, the farcical scenes that unfolded in County Hall last week as councillors prepared to debate the issue of eviction notices arriving in Limerick tenants’ letter boxes made a mockery of the very notion of democracy and will do nothing to appease to fears of those worried about being ousted from their homes.

The emergency meeting erupted into chaos and ended after only 35 minutes. Rather than debating the issue, the council executive waved standing orders about like a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

The 200+ plus already facing eviction locally certainly won’t feel any better off as a result of the affair that ensued in the Dooradoyle chambers last Wednesday afternoon.

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The motion before council members called for a report from the council executive regarding emergency accommodation capacity in the city and county, and for the same to be discussed.

The proposal – tabled by councillors Sharon Benson (SF), Tom Collopy (SF), Elisa O’Donovan (SC), and Jerome Scanlan (IND) – moved that the local authority note the recent statement by Threshold which said: “Unprecedented numbers of adults and children could now become homeless as a result of the Government’s plans to lift the eviction ban for rented properties”.

They also called for Limerick City and County Council to note the statements by Threshold that “the organisation currently works with thousands of individuals with notices of termination, and the Coalition’s decision is likely to exacerbate the concerns — and situations — these renters find themselves in”.

As a result of this, it was proposed for councillors to write to the Government and appeal to them to reconsider their decision of ending the eviction ban and to liaise with all local authorities during this time, and to identify and provide all necessary resources required to assist them in increasing housing supply.

But there was an immediate twist to proceedings when a counter motion was tabled by Fine Gael councillor John Sheahan, seconded by party colleague Liam Galvin.

The Fine Gael representatives called on the Government to expedite the counter measures democratically passed by Dáil Éireann on foot of lifting the temporary eviction ban.

All hell broke loose at this point when it was decided by Mayor Francis Foley that a vote should be taken on the counter-motion which, if passed, would bring the meeting to a conclusion without any need for debating the issue at hand.

Sinn Féin councillor Sharon Benson was having none of it.

“No Mayor, that is not happening,” she fumed.

The reason for the emergency meeting, Cllr Benson explained, was to discuss evictions and to receive a report regarding emergency accommodation, and she wasn’t going to be fobbed off with talk of standing orders and votes on counter-proposals.

“I am calling for a vote, I have a proposer and seconder,” Mayor Foley replied.

“You are pulling the same stunt they pulled in Cork,” Cllr Benson declared.

Labour Party councillor Conor Sheehan was equally flabbergasted.

“Is this the Russian Duma or the Council?” Cllr Sheehan inquired.

Sharon Benson then called for the item on the agenda, for which the emergency meeting was called, to be discussed first. This was supported by Social Democrats councillor Elisa O’Donovan.

“Standing orders,” came the reply from Mayor Foley.

Cllr Jerome Scanlan wanted clarity on whether standing orders would allow debate if the counter proposal is passed.

“Or will that be the end of it?” he demanded.

“I am calling a vote,” Foley hit back.

“You are shutting down the democratic will of the council,” Cllr Benson bellowed.

“I am not here to be roared and shouted at,” Mayor Foley shot back.

Independent councillor Eddie Ryan wasn’t impressed either having driven 33 miles from South East Limerick into County Hall for a meeting that wasn’t going to go ahead.

“We are complying with standing orders,” Fine Gael councillor Liam Galvin insisted.

Cllr Benson tried to raise another motion but was blocked from doing so, told by the executive that the “Mayor’s interpretation” of standing orders is final.

The counter-motion was passed by 25 votes for, 11 against, and one abstention.

But Cllr Benson still had one more sting in her tail.

A second special meeting kicked off in the council chamber 25 minutes later. It all started off peacefully enough until 10 minutes in the Sinn Féin councillor raised her hand to ask a question.

“We have unfinished business from the last meeting,” she defied, prompting the meeting to be adjourned and ultimately abandoned.

Democracy at its finest!