ACCUSATIONS of an ambush on Clare’s first citizen, as she chaired the monthly meeting of Clare County Council, were robustly denied by three members who tabled a motion calling for a ban on the use of the title ‘Mayor of Clare’.
Councillors Ann Norton, Mark Nestor and Paul Murphy refused a number of requests from fellow councillors to withdrawn their motion. They noted that, under the Local Government legislation, the only mayoral title is that of ‘Mayor of the Ennis Municipal District,’ owing to the population of the area, and that the title for the county council chair is ‘Cathaoirleach’. Their motion asked “that the executive use the correct titles of Cathaoirleach of County Clare and Mayor of Ennis in all correspondence and media releases”.
Responding, Councillor Howard, who is the current council chair, said she found it hard not to take the motion personally. She agreed with the assertion of Councillor Clare Colleran Molloy that it represented an ambush. Discussion of the matter ended without the motion being withdrawn or put to a vote.
Outlining their concerns, Councillor Murphy described the motion as “fairly straight forward”. “We believe that the Local Government Act isn’t being adhered to with our use of the titles,” he said. “I’m the traditionalist. Our chain of office says ‘Cathaoirleach’ on it. I firmly believe that we should be using that title.”
Councillor Mark Nestor said he didn’t have much to say on the motion other than that if it was laid out in the Local Government Act that there was an option to use the Irish language form of the title, that should be done. “Tá easpa measa léirithe arís ar an nGaeilge ag an Comhairle Contae,” he said. He added that he didn’t want to be complaining or giving out about anyone, or to personalise the issue, but to show respect for the Irish language.
Councillor Ann Norton said that back in 2014, the Local Government Reform Act came in and was brought up at the council meeting in Clare by former councillor, James Breen, and that members had sought details of the naming conventions. “We did get a letter back detailing that,” she said. “Within the Ennis Municipal District, because we are a town equal or greater than 20,000, we are entitled to the name ‘Mayor of Ennis’… I feel that [because] we are a Municipal District that the Mayor of town is being undermined… I would appreciate it if the media would refer back to the proper titles of Cathaoirleach and Leas Cathaoirleach of Clare and Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Ennis. I think if there is any issue with this, then it’s time that we write to the minister for local government to actually clarify if the legislation has been changed, because as far as I’m aware it hasn’t.”
Councillor PJ Ryan expressed his surprise at the motion. “I understand that we had the option to use Cathaoirleach or Mayor,” he said. “I think we certainly need to look at it again and if we have to write to the minister, I don’t have a problem with that. I certainly wouldn’t be in favour of not using the title of Mayor.”
Councillor Pat McMahon referred to formal meetings with international delegations. “When introduced as ‘Cathaoirleach’ there’s no reaction,” he said. “When introduced as ‘Mayor,’ there is a very positive reaction.”
Councillor Colleran Molloy expressed her surprise at the motion. “I was taken by surprise at its prematurity,” the Fianna Fáil member said. “It’s my recollection that this matter was brought up in Any Other Business (AOB) at the Ennis Municipal District Meeting that was held in December. It was brought up by Councillor Norton and, at the time, the undertaking was that it would be brought to the attention of management and that it would be addressed and that we would hear back. That was my understanding, so when this motion appeared for the County Council at large, I thought it was inappropriate and somewhat premature. There was no consensus sought from me by the proposers of this motion and it was unilateral and without consultation. I consider that disappointing. I had the honour of serving as the Mayor of the Ennis Municipal District and the Mayor of County Clare and I feel a great unease about this motion and the sense that it could be considered akin to an ambush on the sitting Mayor and Cathaoirleach of the day. I query where is the evidence of the undermining of the title of Mayor, as per Councillor Norton’s assertion.”
She added that, as a qualified barrister, she could concede that the statutory basis for the motion was sound. “However, the spirit and the custom and practice of many local authorities is, as it has been here in County Clare, [is that] the Cathaoirleach being referred to as Mayor,” she said.
Councillor Johnny Flynn described the timing of the notice of motion as “not great”. “I think we are in a time where we need to be united and show the leadership that has been shown by you, Mayor, and your predecessors in this office… I consider that the first citizen of our county is a hugely important role and I have no difficulty at all with the use of ‘Mayor’.”
Councillor Pat Daly said he had been Mayor of Ennis and Mayor of Clare and couldn’t support the motion. He said he believed the change in the legislation of the naming convention had been “a major mistake”. “I think the people who put this forward should look for a vote or withdraw it,” he said. “It’s not appropriate.”
Chief Executive Pat Dowling said that the executive would respect the democratic decision of a majority of council members. He noted that many submissions on the matter had been made to the ministers in government over the years. “The sentiment is always really that there is one first citizen of County Clare in any given year, and there are chairs of municipal districts, one of whom is rightfully called ‘Mayor,’ as is provided for in the Act, but there’s one first citizen for County Clare and it’s up to the members whether you call that person Mayor or Cathaoirleach,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to create much upset with the public at large.”
Responding, Councillor Howard said: “It’s hard not to take offence. It’s hard not to take it personally considering it’s my three MD colleagues that put forward this notice of motion… It certainly feels like an ambush. In the week where we are looking at the highest numbers ever of people with Covid… I think this motion, in all honesty, is very frivolous. I wear a chain that’s been worn since 1899 and it says, ‘the Mayor of Clare ‘on it. I’m one of 59 people to wear it. I’m very proud to do so and I continue to do so. The day I became Mayor in this very room last June, you can check out my speech, I said I would answer to whatever you call me, be it Mayor, be it Cathaoirleach, be it Mary or be it Councillor. I really don’t mind.”
Councillor Norton denied any suggestion the motion represented an ambush. “We are just looking that the right titles are used,” she said. “I’m questioning whether Clare County Council are actually breaking the law by not using our right titles. Councillor Molloy can insult me and say what she likes, but at the end of the day, being a barrister and being a solicitor, she should understand the law of the day, and this is something that needs to be questioned. We have a Taoiseach, we have a Tánaiste that are extremely proud to leave our country, and are known as the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste across this world and [those words] are in the Irish language. I cannot understand why people are afraid to use the word ‘Cathaoirleach’ of the county.”
Councillor Shane Talty described the motion as “almost ridiculous”. He added that, “in fairness to the three members that bought the motion, any member can [do that] either collectively or individually, so in fairness to those that put the motion forward, it’s entitled to be heard and a decision made”.
Councillor Murphy said he took the accusation that he was involved in an ambush personally. “I’m leaving this motion stand as it is,” he said. “If anybody has a problem with it, they should be writing to the minister.”
Because he is incoming chair from next June, Councillor Howard asked if Councillor PJ Ryan might like to have the closing comments or suggest whether the motion should be put to a vote.
“I would certainly like to have the honour of being Mayor of Clare for 2021,” he said. “I would like to see the title being that of ‘Mayor’. I am a bit concerned about conflict coming into it. Realistically, we should be all able to agree among ourselves. This has gone down a road it shouldn’t gave gone. If members of Clare County Council wish that the Mayor should be referred to as the Mayor, the minister can think what he likes, I’m not too bothered about the minister.”
The meeting was then adjourned to February.