Cllr McAfee interviewed by police over election

IAIN McAfee, who was elected to Ballymoney Borough Council and then became the subject of an investigation to see if he had breached electoral law, has confirmed to the Times he has now been interviewed by police.

Cllr McAfee, who stood as an Independent in the Ballymoney Town electoral area in the May election this year, said the PSNI told him they would prepare a file and submit it to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

It will then be up to the PPS to decide if he will be charged with any offence.

Cllr McAfee did not comment further on the police interview apart from saying no timescale for further developments was given to him.

Cllr McAfee is a Health Inequalities Officer for the Carrickfergus and Larne areas and is based with Ballymena Borough Council.

It is understood the law is that a person who get paid to work for or under a council in Northern Ireland can be ‘disqualified for being elected or being a councillor’.

Cllr McAfee did attend a few meetings of Ballymoney Council after being elected but when the electoral probe began he voluntarily did not attend any further meetings and said he was not taking the Council salary while the investigation continued.

When elected Cllr McAfee said: “The whole event has been a great experience and to be elected is the icing on the cake.”

When news of the investigation into his status as a councillor broke at the end of May, Cllr McAfee said in a statement: “The announcement that I may be disqualified to be a councillor is devastating for myself and the many people who supported me during my campaign and since then.

“I entered the election process genuinely and it is clear that I was elected because people agreed with what I believed in. It is however clear that some will be very pleased if I am disqualified. When I stood I had a vision that change was needed and that Ballymoney Borough Council would become more aware of the views of the community and more importantly take on these views.

“Sadly this vision may not happen unless I am still officially a councillor. However, until such time as the situation is clarified I will not be taking part in any Council business and I have also returned any allowances.

“I will now have to take stock of my future. I wasn’t naturally attracted to politics and as several have said to me it is a dirty business which I am probably best not involved in anyway. Certainly since this has occurred my opinion on a number of issues has changed.”

At the full monthly meeting of Ballymoney Borough Council on Monday July 4, the Council Chief Executive John Dempsey issued a lengthy, detailed, statement saying “much has been written in the local press on the subject and it may be helpful to members if I set out some of the law”.

Mr Dempsey’s statement said: ‘The investigation by the police into possible breaches of the law in regard to the election of Councillor McAfee is ongoing and I cannot make any comment on that matter.

‘However, much has been written in the local press on the subject and it may be helpful to members if I set out some of the law as it applies to disqualification for being elected or being a councillor, penalties for acting as a councillor while disqualified and vacation of the office of councillor through non-attendance.

‘These issues are included in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, Chapter 9 (“the 1972 Act”), the full text of which can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/apni/1972/9/contents. This legislation is where district councils in Northern Ireland derive most of their powers. Other legislation, notably the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, Chapter 14, (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/apni/1962/14) covers in detail the criminal law in relation to elections and the procedures whereby breaches of the law can be dealt with.

‘Section 4 of the 1972 Act sets out the grounds on which a person can be “disqualified for being elected or being a councillor”. One grounds for disqualification is if “he holds any paid office or other place of profit … in the gift or disposal of that or any other council.” However if someone is disqualified as defined in this section, the Act does not give the council itself any power to deal with the matter.

‘Section 6 states that “if any person acts or purports to act as a councillor while disqualified within the meaning of this section for so acting, he shall be guilty of an offence…” Again, no power to deal with an offence is given to council itself.

‘Section 9 states that “if a councillor fails throughout a period of six consecutive months from the date of his last attendance to attend any meeting of the council, he shall, unless the failure was due to some reason approved by the council before the expiry of that period, cease to be a member of the council.

‘Section 10 states “Where a councillor …. ceases to be a councillor by reason of failure to attend meetings of the council; the council shall forthwith declare his office as councillor to be vacant and signify the vacancy by notice signed by the clerk of the council and published in such manner as the council directs.”

Mr Dempsey’s statement continued: ‘The position as I understand it therefore is as follows:- Council cannot take any action against a councillor who is elected while disqualified for being elected. Council also cannot take any action against a person who acts as a councillor while disqualified. These are both criminal matters and are for the police and the courts to deal with. However, where a councillor fails to attend any meetings for a six-month consecutive period, that councillor ceases to be a member of council; council must then declare the office to be vacant and I must publish that fact in the way that council directs me.’

At the meeting Mr Dempsey was asked by DUP councillor John Finlay if he could confirm that neither an elected member nor candidate made a complaint to the Council about the matter.

Mr Dempsey said he could confirm that and Cllr Finlay replied: “There seems to be some feeling out there that some candidate or party or councillor made an objection. I’m glad that was not the case.”

And DUP councillor Evelyne Robinson said: “It makes us feel a lot more content”.

Meanwhile, Alderman Bill Kennedy (Ulster Unionist) said he thought the law on the matter is “bizarre” and said it was “absolutely ridiculous” that the legal situation is what it is and that it is “absolutely scandalous” that the electoral authorities “puts somebody through that who are probably working at arm’s length.”

He added: “It is ridiculous. It drags on and on ... and somebody who was probably quite innocent and unaware ... that it is stated it is a criminal offence.”

In response, Cllr McAfee told the Times this week that the comments made by Cllr Kennedy were similar to numerous comments he has heard from members of the public whilst Cllr McAfee described Cllr Robinson’s comment as “bizarre”.