Cllr Stephen Keary issued a statement amid calls to apologise to Leader journalist Maria Flannery Picture: Michael Cowhey
AFTER BREAKING his week-long silence, Mayor of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary has offered no apology to a Leader journalist whom he described as “unprofessional” at a recent council meeting.
At a local area meeting in Rathkeale on September 12, Cllr Keary launched his attack on journalist Maria Flannery, calling her “unprofessional” for reporting on a spate of quad thefts affecting farmers in Limerick.
The previous week, Ms Flannery was asked to leave a meeting, convened to discuss the crimes, after Cllr Keary called a vote to continue the proceedings without the press. The story was published after a number of victims contacted the Leader to share their experience.
District chairperson Cllr Richard O’Donoghue expressed disappointment at the fact that other councillors were not invited to that meeting.
After this, Cllr Keary then said: “I think it was very poor journalism and very unprofessional of the journalist that, when asked to refrain from making a comment on the meeting, she didn’t do so.”
Limerick Leader editor Eugene Phelan called for the Fine Gael politician to apologise to Ms Flannery and said that he “had no business seeking to effectively censor the local newspaper”.
In response to questions put to Cllr Keary, he issued a 600-word statement to the Leader this week. However, the mayor did not offer any apology amid numerous calls to do so.
“My comments at the council meeting in Rathkeale were not designed to cause offence to anyone, including the reporter,” he stated.
He stated farmers were “upset” after the story was published on September 9. He concluded that he “reflected the views of the farmers who were worried that reports would make their plight worse and would be done without their knowledge or consent”.
Editor Eugene Phelan said that Cllr Keary “failed to address the questions asked of him and neither has he properly apologised to journalist Maria Flannery, whom he called unprofessional for writing a story of strong public interest.
"This is about press freedom; it is also about telling the people of Limerick what is going on; not hiding the fact that farmers were extremely concerned about thefts from their farms. Farmers contacted the Limerick Leader and asked us to highlight the story as have the gardai themselves who need public support to help them catch the culprits responsible for these crimes.”
In a column in this weekend's broadsheet, Ms Flannery said: “Our role as the press is to act as the eyes and ears of the public. In instances where a politician attempts to control a story, the free press is compromised.”
Independent councillor Emmett O'Brien, who was in attendance at last week's local area meeting, told the Limerick Leader: "To deflect personal responsibility in a disagreement with a fellow councillor on to a journalist, with no right of reply, was totally uncalled for by Mayor Keary. Regrettably Mayor Keary compounded matters by then calling maria Flannery's professional integrity into question and I do not want to be associated with that comment."
A spokesperson for Fine Gael said that “journalists should be allowed to cover stories of public interest without hindrance”.
University of Limerick head of journalism, Mary Dundon said that Ms Flannery “was totally professional” in her reporting.
UL journalism lecturer Dr Fergal Quinn said that it "was very disappointing to see a high profile figure in local government target a young journalist in this way.
"Elected officials should understand that all business they conduct in that role is supposed to be in the public interest. A critical part of that is that the public be allowed to scrutinise what they are doing in their name. That is what journalists are there for and it is why their job is so important," he added.
Reacting to Mayor Keary's comments, Social Democrats chairperson and Limerick City representative, Sarah Jane Hennelly said that the Fine Gael figurehead was practising "Trumpian politics".
"As an elected representative of the party of government and Mayor of the city, we deserve clarification as to whether the Fine Gael party leadership stand over this type of politics, where untruths can be used and journalists chilled. If so, this is something we should all be concerned about, as it shows an unwillingness by the party in government to deal appropriately, promptly and honestly with such tactics being used by their representatives. If not, then the Mayor and his party should seriously consider if he should proceed in his position as figurehead of our city.
The early signs are not good for what’s to come in Cllr Stephen Keary’s term of office. This is not about any individual, it is about the rhetoric and the impact it will have on public opinion and discourse, and on people’s lives. We have seen what divisive politics can do to a society and must do our utmost to prevent it taking hold in ours," she stated.
Questions put to Cllr Keary by the Limerick Leader:
1. On what basis did you believe Maria Flannery was acting in an 'unprofessional' manner?
2. FG stated this morning: 'Journalists should be allowed to cover stories of public interest without hindrance.' Do you share the same opinion?
3. There have been calls for you to apologise to Ms Flannery. Will you be doing this?
4. Why weren't other members of the Rathkeale-Adare council area notified of the farmers meeting two weeks ago?
5. Why did you call for a vote to eject Ms Flannery from the meeting? Why did you condemn her at a public meeting, without an opportunity for right of reply, even though you told members of the farming community that they could make statements to the press outside the meeting?
Cllr Keary’s full statement in reply:
“The meeting which you referred to in your correspondence, was held on Thursday the 31st of August in the Rathkeale, House Hotel.
“This meeting was neither a public meeting nor a meeting of Limerick City and County Council.
“I was asked in my capacity as a Public Representative to convene a meeting, like many other meetings are, by individuals or groups of constituents, by a number of farmers with senior members of An Garda Siochana in response to very serious, sensitive, personal and criminal matters.
“The farmers who had requested a private meeting were surprised and concerned when, on their arrival to the Rathkeale House Hotel that a representative of the media was in attendance without their knowledge.
“I reflected those concerns and asked those in attendance if they wanted the member of the media present to remain in the meeting.
“The attendees decided by vote that they did not want the member of the media to remain at what was a private meeting. The meeting continued on that basis.
“The West Limerick Edition of the Limerick Leader dated the 9th of September 2017 reported on this event to my amazement.
“On Tuesday the 12th of September 2017, I was asked at the Adare Rathkeale Local Area Meeting of Limerick City and County Council why the Councillors from the Adare Rathkeale Area had not been invited to the “Private meeting”.
“I informed this person that the meeting with the farmers and An Garda Siochana was not a meeting of Limerick City and County Council, nor was it public meeting. The private nature of the meeting was in accordance with the wishes of those that had requested it.
“I also reflected the views of the farmers in question, who are upset, annoyed and concerned that a matter which they had specifically sought to be discussed in private and in confidence due to its sensitive nature was placed in the public arena in the fashion in which it was.
“I reflected the sentiments of the people concerned, who had requested a private meeting.
“They are worried that due to the sensitive nature of the reports and the commentary in public, they could potentially have their identities revealed in public.
“Central to this issue remains the wishes of those who approached me initially to have the original meeting held with absolute confidentiality and discretion.
“This is something that they as a group are now collectively very upset over, and something which has never been reflected publicly in any media report.
“It is regrettable that certain commentators and others have, through their statements, made the upset of the farmers who have already endured very stressful events for them worse, without regard to their plight.
“My comments at the Council meeting in Rathkeale were not designed to cause offence to anyone, including the reporter.
“I was reflecting the sentiments of the people who called me in a very distressed state.
“They were extremely upset at a reporter being present at what they believed was a private meeting.
“They are the victims, and each one of those who have contacted me have made it very clear that they would never have attended a meeting if they thought for one minute that it was going to be reported or debated in any media outlet or in any public forum.
“Their sole objective was to engage with An Garda Siochana with my assistance as their local representative in a confidential manner.
“I reflected the views of the farmers who were worried that reports would make their plight worse and would be done without their knowledge or consent.”