Collins controversy referred to Standards in Public Office Commission

Junior Minister Niall Collins making his statement to the Dáil on Thursday.

PEOPLE Before Profit TD Paul Murphy has made an official complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) regarding the sale of Limerick County Council land to the wife of Fianna Fáil Junior Minister Niall Collins.

In an interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland yesterday (Friday), Deputy Murphy claimed that Minister Collins “clearly broke the code of conduct for councillors” as well as the Local Government Act 2001, as he did not recuse himself from a meeting of the Bruff Electoral Area in 2007 which agreed the site be sold on the open market.

As first reported by The Ditch website, Mr Collins’ wife, Dr Eimear O’Connor, expressed an interest in the site a month prior to the meeting.

Deputy Murphy highlighted Section 4.4 of the Code of Conduct for Councillors which states that “under the 2001 Act councillors must disclose at a meeting of the local authority or of its committees any pecuniary or other beneficial interest, (of which they have actual knowledge) they or a connected person have in, or material to, any matter with which the local authority is concerned in the discharge of its functions, and which comes before the meeting. The councillor must withdraw from the meeting after disclosure and must not vote or take part in any discussion or consideration of the matter or seek to in any other aspect influence the decision making of the Council.”

Breaches of Section 183 of the Local Government Act carry a maximum penalty of two years in jail and or a maximum fine of €10,000 upon conviction on indictment.

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In a prepared statement to the Dail on Thursday, after issuing a statement on the matter the previous Monday, Minister Collins admitted he did not recuse himself from the Bruff area meeting on January 15, 2007.

“In hindsight…it would have been better had I not participated in the local area committee meeting in January of 2007,”  he said.

He added that “neither I nor my wife had any pecuniary or beneficial interest” when the matter came up for discussion at the  meeting which agreed the land should be sold.

“It was absolutely clear that my wife did not benefit in any way from my attendance at the January 2007 meeting.

“It was my full understanding, and it remains the same today, that I was not participating in a discussion, or a decision, that in any way contravened the 2001 Local Government Act,” he said.

“It was agreed at the area committee meeting that the property should be sold on the open market. There was no vote taken and no disagreement to the proposal by the council executive.”

He said he was in absolutely no doubt that his actions, in relation to the matter, were at all times legally correct.

However, Deputy Murphy disagreed with this conclusion.

“It’s open and shut. It’s black and white. He clearly broke the code of conduct for councillors. I think it’s very clear he broke the local government act 2001, despite what he says,” the People Before Profit TD declared.

Deputy Murphy claimed that Minister Collins and others in government “were out to confuse and distract and point away from the essence of what happened” by suggesting the Bruff Electoral Area meeting had no statutory powers to sell the Council site.

A motion from Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns for Mr Collins to take questions in the Dáil about the controversy was defeated by a combination of Government and Independent TDs.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy.

Deputy Murphy said he decided to make the complaint to SIPO because he felt “it is clear we are not going to get proper parliamentary accountability” after the motion was defeated.

He said he interpreted Niall Collins’ Dail admission, that he should have recused himself from the 2007 council meeting as “an implicit admission that he knew that his wife had expressed interest in the land when he participated in the decision to put it up for sale.

“Niall Collins’ wife had a material interest in the land being put up for sale. He didn’t disclose that interest. He didn’t discharge himself from the meeting,” said Deputy Murphy.

“There were two decisions. The decision to put the land up for sale, which he participated in – that is clear – and even the sale itself. If you look at the minutes of the full Council meeting in September 2008, the agenda refers back to the decision he (Niall Collins) participated in. It says ‘the disposal of this site was “agreed” by the members of the Bruff Electoral Area, at the meeting, held in January 2007, which he (Niall Collins) was involved in.”

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Ms O’Connor.

Mr Collins added his wife was one of a number of members of the public who had made “various expressions of interest” about the council-owned site.

The sources of any other expressions of interest in the Council site, subsequent to it being sold to Ms O’Connor, are not known at this stage.

Mr Collins emphasised that he was not a member of the Limerick County Council when the land was eventually sold to his wife.

He insisted “no law was broken” and he “did not participate in any decision that authorised the sale of this land”.