Credit: Seamus Treanor, Youtube

Why is SIPO pursuing a Monaghan Councillor for criticising immigration?

In advance of the 2019 local elections, Monaghan County Councillor Seamus Treanor issued a leaflet to voters. In that leaflet, he expressed his opposition to what he calls “uncontrolled immigration”. The leaflet in question can be read below:

Councillor Treanor went on to win re-election on the first count, comfortably exceeding the quota.

He is now facing an investigation from the Standards in Public Office Commission, in relation to the leaflet above. This is, to put it mildly, extraordinary.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) is investigating Councillor Treanor for an alleged breach of section 15 of the local Government Act, 2001, which states that:

“It is the duty of members and employees to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest”

Councillor Treanor, then, is accused of lacking proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest in publishing the leaflet above.

There are two relevant questions which arise. The first is simply Is the accusation true? And the second is does SIPO have any authority to act in this matter? Let’s take them in turn.

The first thing to say here is that Councillor Treanor is a politician, and, at the time he issued that leaflet, was making a political argument in the course of an election campaign. He is not accused of corruption, or of enriching himself, or taking bribes, or anything of the sort. He is accused instead of publishing a leaflet which does not maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest. The problem is that there is no evidence that suggests this accusation is either true, or even arguable. The most that could be said is that the Councillor speaks in plain, unflowery, direct, and pointed English. He does not use euphamisms, or try to make his words conform to standards of political correctness. Anybody can understand what he is saying. That is a rare skill, for politicians, and explains much of his appeal.

It is true to say that the language in the leaflet is provocative, and that no sources for the claims made in it are provided. But that does not mean that the claims are false, or invented. For example, the claim that “up to 92% of asylum seekers are bogus” directly corresponds to a 2016 article in the Irish Independent by journalist Jim Cusack, which reported:

Ireland may also have the highest level of refusals for asylum seekers in the EU, turning down more than 90pc of those who arrived here seeking refuge, the figures show.

The leaflet says that those who are refused asylum should be deported immediately. This is not a factual question, but a political opinion. Councillor Treanor’s comfortable re-election suggests it was an opinion shared by many of those who voted for him.

The claim that “22 houses in Monaghan were allocated to economic migrants who never spent a day on the housing list”, meanwhile, is also true. Monaghan County Council confirms that 22 such homes were reserved for emergency accommodation for migrants, on foot of an instruction from the department of justice, who, it is true to say, did not spend any time on a housing list, but acquired the homes in preference to those who were, in fact, on the list. Councillor Treanor is certainly within his rights to highlight this fact, and voters are within their rights to cast a vote for candidates who object to that policy.

It is also true that a person arriving here can obtain benefits within 72 hours, and that grants are available for them for the purposes described. Indeed, not only are those claims true, but the facts of them would be welcomed by every NGO active on the migrants rights issue in Ireland. The problem, apparently, is mentioning them.

The issue in effect here is not whether Councillor Treanor was telling the truth. There is no real dispute about any of that. The issue is simply whether telling the truth about this issue in the way that he did displays “proper standards of integrity”. In other words, the accusation is that Councillor Treanor was trying to win votes by turning voters against migrants. The accuracy of what he said is not actually in dispute.

But the problem here is that if Councillor Treanor’s leaflet turned voters against migrants, and the facts in his leaflet were true, then the real culprit is not the Councillor, but the authors of an unpopular policy. The position adopted by those who would prosecute the Councillor appears to be that public representatives have a duty to stay silent about unpopular policies. This is nonsense.

It is also worth noting that Councillor Treanor’s election did not take place in a vacuum. There were no fewer than fifteen other candidates in the election, all of whom had many opportunities to prove his statements false, or misleading, or politically wrongheaded. They failed to do so. That is not Councillor Treanor’s fault: Had he, in fact, made false claims that could easily be shown to be false, you can be sure his opponents, not to mention the media, would have jumped on the matter.

This brings us to the second question posed above: Does SIPO have any authority in the matter?

SIPO, of course, answers that question in the affirmative. They are the Standards in Public Office Commission, after all, and this is about standards.

But the truth is that Councillor Treanor made these comments as a political candidate, not as a councillor. Had he not been seeking re-election, and instead, a candidate seeking office for the first time, SIPO would have no authority at all in this matter. We have the bizarre spectacle, then, of candidates for election being held to openly different standards. Had one of Councillor Treanor’s challengers in the election lied or mislead, SIPO could do nothing about it. The Councillor, on the other hand, is being taken to task, essentially, for telling the truth.

None of this is what SIPO was intended to do.

It was intended to root out corruption in public office – bribes, enrichment, and all that sort of stuff. It was not, ever, intended to be a tool to police political debate.

If we want to hold candidates to account for what they say during election campaigns, then there are already extensive mechanisms for that. There are debates. And interviews. And media fact checks. And opposing candidates. And, of course, voters. What SIPO is doing here, in essence, is asserting that all those mechanisms are redundant, when a candidate that some people do not like happens to win. That is a horrendous precedent, because, taken to its logical conclusion, it mean that SIPO and its equivalents, not voters, should decide who gets to hold public office.

Councillor Treanor has long been a controversial figure, mainly because he says things about immigration, in very plain language, that more respectable politicians would never dream of saying. That is also, in large part, why he keeps winning elections with an ease that drives his critics to madness.

If his opponents wish to beat him, then they should do so at the polls. SIPO, in this case, is destroying its own authority by allowing itself to be used as a tool for sore losers. The precedent being set here is terrible.

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