Only a matter of minutes after Cllr John O’Hara took his seat in the chamber of Mayo County Council for the first time, the new Fine Gael representative for Ballina was dragged into a political row that has rumbled on for well over a year now.
With Dep Michelle Mulherin’s election to the Dáil, Fine Gael had to fill a number of seats which she had held on boards and authorities. While the majority of the seats were filled with little fuss, the issue of the seat she formerly held on the Mayo VEC kicked off a political storm in the chamber.
The rules of the VEC has a strict gender balance requirement, and with Mulherin having to give up her seat it left Fine Gael in a quandary as there is now no female county councillor in the chamber. To side-step the rules and appoint O’Hara to take this seat, Fine Gael played what was at various points described as being like trading at the Ballinasloe horse fair or playing a three card trick. Former Castlebar town councillor Kevin Guthrie, whose was appointed to fill a vacancy left by Castlebar town councillor Noreen Heston (who resigned from the authority after only a number of months following her election in 2009 ), resigned from his seat on the VEC, thus leaving two vacancies on the VEC. Fine Gael filled its county council seat with the newly elected Cllr O’Hara, leaving Castlebar Town Council to fill Guthrie’s seat with a woman to ensure the gender balance is maintained. Guthrie was appointed by Castlebar Town Council to fill the seat vacated by Cllr Heston, which caused a problem for Fine Gael, forcing Cllr Gerry Coyle to resign from the VEC and have Dep Mulherin appointed to keep the gender balance in order.
The appointment was put to two votes in the chamber on Monday, the first vote was prompted by a proposal from the Fianna Fáil side of the house to postpone the issue to allow Fine Gael to review it. That motion was defeated by 18 votes to nine. The second vote was taken to appoint either Cllr O’Hara or Sinn Féin councillor Rose Conway-Walsh to fill the seat on the VEC. Cllr Conway-Walsh had earlier been proposed by her party colleague Cllr Gerry Murray. The vote to elect Cllr O’Hara was passed by 18 votes to 10 in the chamber. Both votes saw all 17 Fine Gael members voting along party lines with Independent councillor Frank Durcan also supporting them on both votes.