Councillors warned over conduct on social media

Dr Tom Frawley, Northern Ireland Ombudsman.
Dr Tom Frawley, Northern Ireland Ombudsman.

Councillors in Derry and Strabane have been warned about the dangers of posting inappropriate material on Facebook and Twitter by Northern Ireland Ombudsman , Mr. Tom Frawley.

It has now emerged that there have been five complaints over alleged breaches of the ‘Code of Conduct’ made against local elected representatives from Derry City and Strabane District Council from June 2014 (just after the Code came into being) to October, 2015.

The number of complaints was among the highest registered for the 11 different councils across Northern Ireland. Belfast has had just two over the same period.

Mr. Frawley delivered a presentation on the ‘N.I. Elected members Code Of Conduct and Declarations of Interest’ to councillors at a special meeting on Monday.

Across the north, dozens of complaints have been made to the Ombudsman and 12 of these after assessment going on to be investigated with nine still ongoing.

The complaints range from councillors’ behaviour towards people and breaches of confidential information to bringing the council into disrepute and misuse of council resources.

Half of them were lodged by other councillors and half by members of the public. Mr Frawley said that “many were as the result of Facebook postings.”

“Technology - that whole arena opens up a whole new particular set of challenges,” he added.

Mr Frawley - who is the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints - told the Council that the Code has been adopted by the Northern Ireland Assembly and that prior to this, there was no uniform, mandatory code in place for Northern Ireland, with organisations such as councils having the option to subscribe to a voluntary code.

He said a commitment was made to establish such a Code as part of the Reform of Government.

“Everyone accepts that a robust Code of Conduct is important,” he maintained.

He also announced the launch in Derry of consultation on proposed ‘Alternative Actions’ for minor breaches of the Code of Conduct.

“As far as we are concerned councillors are entitled to a private life, but in the modern world private behaviour can affect council’s reputation.”

He elaborated that the rules applied to all communications including social media such as Facebook, Twitter and online blogs.

“This social media has been the source of a number of complaints already,” he warned. “It applies at all times when your behaviour might bring your position as a councillor or council into disrepute.”

He added: “As a council it is your personal responsibility to ensure you are familiar with and understand your obligations under the Code.”