The Irish Times view on ethics in public office: rules without sanctions

A councillor has been found to have breached ethics laws because of false claims he made about migrants

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) found that Séamus Treanor, an Independent councillor in Co Monaghan, breached the Ethics in Public Office Act in statements carried on his election leaflets in 2019. Photograph: David Sleator

Politicians, like everyone else, have a right to free speech. That includes the right to say things that are incorrect – a right that, as anyone who has observed an election campaign will attest, they have shown a willingness to exercise. But in the interests of the common good, and in order to ensure the safety and dignity of others, the community chooses to impose certain limits on what can be said. The right to speech does not include the right to whip up hatred, for example. And although politicians enjoy wide latitude in general, we choose to draw the line at false statements that denigrate or demonise vulnerable groups.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) put down an important marker this week when it found that Séamus Treanor, an Independent councillor in Co Monaghan, breached the Ethics in Public Office Act because of election material that complainants said was “racist, dangerous and xenophobic”.

During the 2019 local election campaign, Treanor published a leaflet in which he stated that 92 per cent of asylum seekers were "deemed to be bogus"; that EU migrants could claim benefits after 72 hours in Ireland; and that 22 economic migrants were housed on instruction of the Department of Justice. All three statement were false, Sipo found, and their dissemination was a "deliberate and considered" attempt to "pit one group of the community against another". Treanor "fell significantly below" the standard the public would expect of him, Sipo said, and his conduct was a serious contravention of the relevant statutory provisions.

So now what? Sipo has no power to sanction an individual in a case such as this. Instead, it must send its findings to a number of office-holders, including the chief executive and Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is welcome that Treanor’s unacceptable behaviour has been highlighted and condemned. But if ethics legislation is to have real force in cases such as these, adverse findings should be followed by sanctions.