Councillor challenges code breach sanction over flags row

Councillor Padraig McShaneCouncillor Padraig McShane
Councillor Padraig McShane
An independent councillor suspended for three months in a row over flags has launched a High Court challenge to being sanctioned.

Padraig McShane was found to have breached a code of conduct after being pictured with the Irish tricolour and a Palestinian flag at Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council’s Coleraine headquarters. But his lawyers argued on Thursday the decision should be overturned because of his right to freedom of political opinion.

Mr McShane was pictured sitting behind a bench draped in the flags at the council chamber in June 2015. Alongside him in the photograph were Derry-based independent councillors Gary Donnelly and Darren O’Reilly, and visiting Gaza official Mohamed Al-Halabi. A Democratic Unionist representative lodged a complaint after the picture emerged.

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In November last year the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards ruled that Mr McShane had breached the councillors’ code of conduct. The adjudication covered a prohibition on the use of position to confer and secure personal advantage, and the use of council resources “for political purposes”.

Mr McShane, a former Sinn Fein member and now independent republican representative, did not attend the hearing where the finding was made. He has served the suspension period which saw him banned from all council meetings for three months. In court on March 2 his lawyers began a legal bid to have the adjudication reversed. Counsel argued that the councillor is entitled to express political opinion and free speech under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was also contended that the three-month suspension was excessive. Following submissions, Mr Justice Burgess reserved judgment on whether to grant leave for a statutory appeal against the decision.

Mr McShane declined to comment after the hearing but his solicitor, Michael Brentnall, said: “My client is appealing this on the grounds of his Article 10 rights and, thereafter, the sanction on the basis that it was entirely disproportionate.”