Jail fails to halt 'Stroke' politics

 

You'd have to be an extremely sad political anorak to be able to name the chairman of the Limerick Prison visiting committee. It's not a job that attracts much attention. Which is a pity, because there's a really radical experiment being conducted at the moment.

The chairman of the Limerick Prison visiting committee is, in fact, a prisoner. It's an extraordinarily bold concept, especially since the chairman of the Limerick committee is incarcerated in another prison altogether - Castlerea.

It's not clear how he combines his day job as a jailbird with his duties to the convicts of Limerick. Especially since he already has another job as a member of Galway County Council.

The man in question is, of course, Michael "Stroke" Fahy. The nickname says it all: as the late lamented Brendan O hEithir kindly informed us in 1987, when the Stroke was running in the general election, "for the benefit of readers in Dublin 4 and other genteel parts, stroking in this context has nothing to do with foreplay".

He is what Gordon Brown called Margaret Thatcher - a conviction politician. In his case, the conviction, last March, was on seven counts under the Larceny Act and the Theft and Fraud Offences Act, including false accounting and attempting to make a gain by deception. He defrauded the same county council of which he is a member - and the community he represents in Ardrahan - by having fencing intended for the Community Involvement Scheme erected around his own land and then submitting false invoices for €15,000, which wrongly implicated an innocent contractor.

In sentencing Fahy to 12 months in prison, Judge Raymond Groarke pointed out that the Stroke had not just committed serious crimes, but had harmed his fellow members of county councils: "you have insulted and sullied the office and position of county councillor". His actions had "belittled and rendered suspect" all other hardworking councillors who went about their work diligently and honestly. He also tried to do real harm to council workers and officials, by falsely implicating them in his crimes.

Yet, astonishingly, Michael Fahy is still a member of Galway County Council and his fellow councillors have gone out of their way to keep him there. What's happened since Fahy's conviction is a microcosm of the way Irish political culture continues to tolerate corruption.

Within days of the Stroke's conviction, he was at the annual conference of the Association of County and City Councils in Dungarvan. After he went to jail, special arrangements were made at Castlerea prison to allow him to vote as a county councillor in the Seanad elections. The Irish Prison Service still lists him as chairman of the Limerick Prison visiting committee. And, most bizarrely of all, Galway County Council, the body he defrauded, sullied, belittled and rendered suspect, has twisted itself into shapes that would dazzle a Chinese contortionist to keep him in office.

Two weeks ago, Galway County Council held a special meeting to deal with two urgent matters. One was the ending of the Shannon/Heathrow service. The other, which was accorded the same status, was listed on the agenda as "Request by Cllr M Fahy pursuant to Section 18 of Local Government Act 2001."

That law says that "A person shall be deemed to have resigned from membership of a local authority where the person is absent from attendance at any meeting of the authority for a continuous period of six consecutive months . . . " In Michael Fahy's case, he has been unavoidably detained in Castlerea since April, and should therefore be deemed to have resigned by October at the latest.

He should, of course, have resigned anyway. And, arguably, in the absence of his resignation, he ought to be disqualified from membership of the county council on the grounds, specified in the Local Government Act, that he "is undergoing a sentence of imprisonment for any term exceeding six months" and that he has been found guilty of "fraudulent or dishonest dealings affecting a local authority". On a very lenient but arguable view, he is appealing his conviction and therefore these rules do not yet apply. But there can be no such doubt about his six months absence from council meetings.

There is, however, one get-out clause. If a councillor is absent due to illness and the council passes a resolution to this effect, the resignation is put on hold. The Stroke asked the council to deem his absence from meetings to be "due to illness and his attendance in Dublin", rather than "due to the fact that I have been convicted of defrauding the council and am currently in chokey".

Staggeringly, the councillors accepted this proposition. Two Fianna Fáil councillors proposed it, none of the other 20 councillors said a word, and the motion was passed unanimously in three minutes.

And why not? If you can take wads of cash and be Taoiseach, why can't you rob a council and remain a councillor?