The power-sharing pact between Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and independent councillors held on Monday, and Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr. was elected Donegal’s first Labour Mayor.
His party colleague, Cllr. Martin Farren, was elected deputy mayor.
The election marked the most recent stage in a remarkable journey for the Raphoe man, who was wrongfully arrested as a suspect in a murder investigation 16 years ago. He later found himself battling the State in the Morris Tribunal, which had been established to investigate complaints against some gardaí from the Donegal Division. In 2005, he settled a legal action against the State for €1.5 million.
“It is a great honour for myself to hold the position of first citizen of Donegal, especially after everything my family and I have been through over the years, which we successfully overcame,” Mayor McBrearty said, speaking on Monday after accepting the chain of office from outgoing mayor, Fine Gael Cllr. Noel McBride. The new mayor’s wife, Patricia, his son, Frankie, daughters Shannon and Leanne, his father, Frank McBrearty Sr., and Labour Sen. Jimmy Harte were among the family, friends and supporters who filled the chamber.
But all was not smooth sailing. Fianna Fáil nominated their own party colleagues for mayor and deputy mayor for the third consecutive year, and party whip, Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, said the party could not support Cllr. McBrearty as mayor.
Mayor McBride looks back
This past year was a challenging one, outgoing Mayor, Cllr. Noel McBride said in his last remarks as mayor. “But the important thing is we got the business of Donegal County Council done.
“There were days here that were difficult to a certain extent, but even the bad days were good,” he said. The outgoing mayor thanked his council colleagues, County Manager Seamus Neely, the council’s directors of service and staff for their support and cooperation.
Cllr. McBride said it had been a huge honour for him to represent the county. “We had our good points and bad points, good days and bad days, but we always managed to reach that agreement and consensus,” he said.
Cllr. Barry O’Neill, outgoing deputy mayor, was the first to pay tribute, saying that Cllr. McBride “represented the county with great distinction over the last 12 months”.
Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, Fianna Fáil party whip, spoke on behalf of his party when he wished Cllr. McBride and his wife, Rosemary, and their family well in the future. “We had at times a difficult year but I should say at all times you did your best,” Cllr. Brogan said.
Speaking for the independent grouping, Cllr. Ian McGarvey thanked Mayor McBride and said, “For me there has never been a bad day in this chamber ever since I joined this council, because everybody is intent on doing what’s important for Donegal.”
Sinn Féin Cllr. Mick Quinn thanked Cllrs. McBride and O’Neill for their courtesy and professionalism. “Quite honestly you’ve shown huge commitment to this county council, to this county, but most importantly to the people of this county,” he said.
Labour Party Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr. said Mayor McBride had “served the county extremely well over the last year and it has been a pleasure working with you.”
“I think your dedication to the position of mayor is a hard act to follow,” he said.
Mr. Neely said Mayor McBride’s tenure had been “a year that many challenging and important policy matters had to be addressed, and they were”. The mayor’s focus on tourism has already shown results, the manager said.
There was emotion in the outgoing mayor’s voice as he thanked the speakers, and Cllr. McBrearty was first to rise from his seat to lead the chamber in a standing ovation for the outgoing mayor.
‘Heart on his sleeve’
Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr. “is a councillor who wears his heart on his sleeve,” independent Cllr. Terence Slowey said in seconding Cllr. McBrearty’s nomination for mayor.
“He is a champion of the underdog and indeed he hates to see injustice anywhere,” Cllr. Slowey said. He said he had only come to know Cllr. McBrearty in recent years but added, “I suspect he will make a very good mayor of Donegal.”
Cllr. McBrearty’s Labour Party colleague, Cllr. Martin Farren, nominated Cllr. McBrearty for mayor. “I have no doubt that Frank will do an excellent job and serve his county extremely well,” he said.
However, Fianna Fáil nominated Cllr. Rena Donaghey for mayor. Cllr. Donaghey was first elected to Buncrana Town Council in 1994 and served to 1999, when she was elected to the county council. Cllr. Brogan said anyone who knows Cllr. Donaghey knows she comes to do the best for the people she represents.
He said that in proposing Cllr. Donaghey, “We cannot and will not be supporting Frank McBrearty”.
The Fianna Fáil whip said no one in the past years had caused as much disruption in the chamber as Cllr. McBrearty, and by electing him mayor, “we’re actually rewarding that sort of behaviour”.
Referring to Cllr. Donaghey, Cllr. Brogan said, “She has never at any time offended any member of this council.” When Cllr. Brogan finished speaking, one or two people clapped briefly before the room fell silent.
Fianna Fáil Cllr. Paul Canning seconded Cllr. Donaghey’s nomination. He said during her time on council, Cllr. Donaghey, “at no time has been disruptive during meetings” and showed respect for other councillors. There was no applause when he finished.
In a roll call vote, Cllr. McBrearty won by a margin of 17-11, with only Fianna Fáil councillors supporting Cllr. Donaghey. Sinn Féin Cllr. Cora Harvey did not attend Monday’s AGM.
After the vote there was applause and cheers in the chamber, and Cllr. Farren was the first to stand to embrace Mayor McBrearty.
Cllr. Donaghey thanked her party and wished Cllr. McBrearty “every good wish in his year as mayor”.
Deputy mayor from Inishowen
Independent Cllr. Michael McBride, in nominating Cllr. Martin Farren for deputy mayor, said the Inishowen-based councillor “would make an excellent deputy mayor and represent the people of Donegal with dignity and pride.”
Fine Gael Cllr. Bernard McGuinness, also from Inishowen, said he took great pleasure in seconding the nomination.
Fianna Fáil Cllr. Gerry Crawford proposed his party colleague, Cllr. Patrick McGowan, as deputy mayor, saying he had “a long family tradition and history with politics” and was “a person who holds his beliefs firmly”.
Fianna Fáil Cllr. Seamus Ó Domhnaill seconded the nomination.
When the vote was taken, Cllr. Farren also won by a margin of 17-11. The vote was greeted with applause and cheers. Cllr. Farren’s wife, Eileen, his sister, also Eileen, and his grandchildren Lily and Katy were among the friends and supporters in the chamber.
Cllr. Farren thanked the councillors who nominated him, saying it was a great honour for him and his family, and that he would fulfil the duties to the best of his ability. He thanked his supporters in the chamber, saying, “without their help and support that wouldn’t have been possible”. His voice broke with emotion when he remembered his parents and his late sister, Maureen.
Fianna Fáil claims ‘total exclusion’
Cllr. Brogan’s anger had not softened when it came time for the traditional congratulations from party whips.
The councillor said that Fianna Fáil had been “totally excluded from positions of high office in this council” over the past three years. “In any democracy, I think it’s wrong,” he said.
In fact, Fianna Fáil has not held the mayor’s seat since Cllr. Brendan Byrne served as mayor from 2009-2010, but Fianna Fáil councillors still hold the chairmanships of two of the council’s strategic policy committees (SPCs), giving them two corresponding seats on the corporate policy group, which includes five SPC chairs and the county mayor.
Fianna Fáil were left out of a power-sharing agreement between Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Labour and independent councillors that stemmed from the budget meeting of 2009, when nine Fianna Fáil councillors and then-Mayor, Cllr. Brendan Byrne, adopted the 2010 council budget while the remaining 19 councillors were meeting down the hall.
The new agreement replaced an agreement between Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour and then-independent Cllr. Ó Domhnaill negotiated at the 2009 AGM. Cllr. Ó Domhnaill later joined Fianna Fáil.
At Monday’s AGM, Cllr. Brogan said the current pact promised to be an all-party group. But he argued that members had to admit to the “total exclusion of the Fianna Fáil party”, whose 11 members represent 32 percent of the council.
“This is a shame, and this is wrong, what’s happening here today,” he said.
Cllr. Brogan said, “I think we have an opportunity to move on here today,” and then asked Cllr. McBrearty “to apologise for your behaviour and we can all move on.”
The councillor also suggested that Fianna Fáil may “no longer be turning up for the sake of it” for budget meetings and other key votes. “We’ll no longer be here for making up the numbers,” he said.
Cllr. Brogan’s remarks were interpreted in later published accounts to mean that Fianna Fáil might not participate in key council votes, but Cllr. Brogan said yesterday that was a misinterpretation.
“I can assure you Fianna Fáil will be there,” he said yesterday. “What I was really saying was the groupings can no longer rely on Fianna Fáil support just to make up the numbers.” He noted that every Fianna Fáil member was in the chamber for the AGM, and for other significant votes.
“As a party we can no longer be taken for granted,” he said. Referring to the groupings in the power-sharing pact, he said, “If they want the power, they’re going to have to take the hard decisions that come with it.”
After Cllr. Brogan made his remarks at Monday’s AGM, Cllr. O’Neill said it was not a day for that kind of speech.
“Frank McBrearty has been democratically elected to Donegal County Council, he carries his job out to the best of his ability and as a fellow councillor I would call on all councillors to show support and unity for the new mayor and deputy mayor,” Cllr. O’Neill said. He said he had never known Cllr. McBrearty “to come to a meeting without having the best interests of his constituents at heart”.
Cllr. Quinn said that for the first time in the council’s history, when the term of the council expires in two years, “We will proudly be able to say that in the first year Fianna Fáil had the role of mayor and deputy mayor; second year, Sinn Féin; third year, Fine Gael, this year, Labour will have the role and the final year, independents.
“This is power-sharing as it is supposed to be,” Cllr. Quinn said. “This is a recognition of the mandate of every single citizen of this county who votes.”
One or two councillors could be heard saying, “Hear, hear”, as Cllr. Quinn spoke. “We shouldn’t dismiss this as unimportant,” Cllr. Quinn said. “It’s hugely important.”
He said he agreed that Cllr. Donaghey would make an excellent mayor. He said he hoped that when the next council was elected in 2014, and when it was Fianna Fáil’s turn to nominate a mayor, “in a cooperative and power-sharing agreement, that the obvious person they will nominate is Rena.”
Then with a smile he said to Mayor McBrearty and Deputy Mayor Farren that while Sinn Féin supported their election, “We will also attack the Labour Party any time we feel we have to do it, because this is a political chamber and that’s what it’s all about.”