Independent councillor Brian Dunn has accused some colleagues of trying to bully Sinn Fein representative James McKeown.
Cllr Dunn was not present at a stormy meeting in December when unionists refused to allow Cllr McKeown to succeed the man he replaced, MLA Oliver McMullan, as chairman of the public services committee. After he was co-opted in November, Cllr McKeown took on all other positions assumed by Mr McMullan, who became the first Sinn Fein member of Larne Borough Council at last May’s election.
The DUP claimed the committee chairmanship, saying it had been conferred on Mr McMullan as an individual with previous experience of local government in Moyle, and not on Sinn Fein as a party.
Cllr McKeown, who acknowledged he is a newcomer to council business, was installed as vice-chairman. Unionists insisted, however, that the position be considered again at the council’s annual meeting. That is contrary to the cross-party agreement brokered at Newcastle in June, when all the top posts were agreed for the four-year term of the council.
When minutes of the December debate were presented for scrutiny at the January monthly meeting, Cllr Dunn – a former Ulster Unionist – remarked: “I think you are trying to bully Cllr McKeown.”
As DUP councillor Gregg McKeen commented: “We don’t want your opinion,” Cllr Dunn continued: “I believe we are in breach of the Newcastle agreement. That agreement stated that the chairmanship went to Sinn Fein, not Cllr McMullan. Cllr McKeown had a right to take up the chairmanship if he wanted, but I think he was bullied.”
Turning his attention to the furore in the council over Cllr McKeown’s controversial facebook page, which contained visitor objections to the presence of the Boyne tercentenary memorial window in the mayor’s parlour and the hanging of royal portraits in the chamber, Cllr Dunn asked: “What’s all the fuss about? He is a Sinn Fein member and of course he doesn’t like the emblems.”
Cllr McKeown’s web page had also made reference to the North Antrim Brigade of the IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann and listed among his “friends” Colin Duffy, who was awaiting trial charged with the Real IRA murders at Massereene barracks.
Unionist members had demanded that the council request facebook to remove pictures of the memorial window and a portrait of the Queen and also sought legal advice on whether the web content was contrary to the declaration against terrorism signed by councillors upon taking office.
Cllr McKeen asked for an update and was informed by chief executive Geraldine McGahey that the pictures had been removed on the evening of the council meeting without recourse to facebook. The PSNI had advised that they did not feel that they could pursue a prosecution.
Cllr McKeen said he would be happy for the council to seek further legal opinion. “I feel it is a very serious matter and I would like to see it taken to its fullest conclusion,” he added.
Mrs McGahey said she would do so and offered to bring a report to the council, but Cllr Dunn protested. He claimed that the relevant minute appeared to be “written in code” and was hard to understand.
Again, he said: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about” and asked: “What is the chief executive going to take legal advice on? Perhaps she could brief us before we take that decision.”
Mrs McGahey replied that she had already sought the advice of the chief electoral officer, who had confirmed that it remained open to individual councillors, or a member of the public, to raise an electoral petition. She added that a petition would “incur substantial costs on the person raising it”.
Cllr McKeown was present in the chamber, but took no part in the discussion.