A Louth County councillor walked out of this morning’s monthly meeting in protest after lashing out at the executive for holding a meeting that she claimed failed to adhere to the very guidelines the local authority were said to be following.
Fianna Fáil councillor for Dundalk-Carlingford Erin McGreehan walked out on the meeting after pointing out that social distancing guidelines of maintaining a distance of two metres between persons were not being adhered to at the meeting. This came after a number of officials and councillors spoke on the wide-ranging subject of Covid-19 and actions that were or were not being undertaken to help prevent it’s spread.
Cllr McGreehan said the council were “pontificating” on the subject of social distancing, whilst not practising the guidelines themselves. “We are not setting a good example,” she said.
The statutory monthly meeting was moved from its usual location of the council chamber at County Hall to the theatre space at the An Tain Arts Centre theatre on Crowe Street in Dundalk on Monday (March 23). The council say this was to accommodate appropriate social distancing measures for officials, councillors and media.
Whereas at County Hall, councillors, officials and press would all sit side-by-side, the move was a clear attempt to implement social distancing measures. Asked to take their seats in the lower tier theatre seating, councillors were pointed to specially marked seats, each with a buffer zone of two seats between them and the next seated councillor.
Eight officials sat at a table at the stage end of the room and while more spread out than they would be at County Hall, it was apparent that no official was sat two metres apart. The meeting lasted for one hour and ten minutes. HSE guidelines state that coronavirus can be contracted via close contact with an infected person. They define close contact as spending more than 15 minutes in face-to-face contact within two metres.
Only 22 of the 29 current councillors attended the meeting, meaning more space was available for councillors to distance, but many sat with just the two seat buffer zone as marked out by meeting administrators.
Cllr McGreehan took particular issue with this, claiming the distance marked out was nowhere near two metres. “I can’t see two metres between any of you,” she said.
Chief Executive Joan Martin responded that there was two metres between her and those either side of her – cathaoirleach Liam Reilly to her right and Director of Services Catherine Duff to her left. “There is two metres, we measured it,” she said. When Cllr McGreehan argued there was not two metres between her and her colleagues Sean Kelly or Emma Coffey, Martin said “It’s far more than two metres. It’s all measured.”
Fine Gael councillor and Seanad candidate John McGahon supported Cllr McGreehan’s argument saying, “She is speaking a lot of sense.”
“If you don’t want to hold the meeting, you can leave,” Martin told her. “That is a matter for the members.” At that point, Cllr McGreehan left the makeshift chamber. Councillors Colm Markey, McGahon and Tomas Sharkey also all left the meeting early.
Speaking to LouthNow.ie after the meeting, the Riverstown-based representative said she was annoyed and upset by the reaction to her comments.
“I was told by Joan Martin that they (the seating plan) were measured to the required two metres but if you can reach out and touch someone that is not two metres,” she said. “If we are not working to the highest standards how can we expect others to? Joan quite firmly asked me to leave if I was not happy with the situation. So I did.”
“How can we as a council ask people to stay away from busy areas if this is what is happening at a council meeting? I believe this is too serious of a situation to be taking risks,” she said. “We need to be at a minimum adhere to the guidelines and almost go above them to show a good example. I couldn’t believe how they could argue that they were measured.”
LouthNow.ie, using the iOS Measure app, measured the width of the two seat buffer zone at the end of the meeting. It measured 1.2 metres. Our photograph below clearly shows several instances of persons sitting well within recommended guideline distances of eachother.