Lighthouse campaigners blast behind-closed-doors meeting

Lighthouse campaigners blast behind-closed-doors meeting

6 February 2019

NEWRY, Mourne and Down Council has been criticised for excluding the press and public from a meeting last week to discuss plans to replace the iconic sweeping beam at St John’s Point lighthouse near Killough.

Local politicians met with representatives from the Dublin-based Commissioner of Irish Lights — which is behind a controversial proposal to install a modern LED light instead — to listen to its views and make the case for its retention.

The meeting was organised in the wake of unanimous support for a motion tabled at a council meeting held in public last April in support of retaining the beam.

Members of Lecale Lightkeepers, the cross-community group set up to oppose plans to replace the beam and who sat in the public gallery during the April debate, were also excluded from last week’s meeting along with the press.

But despite stinging criticism of the decision to exclude the public by a number of councillors, the local authority has defended the move, insisting the event at the council’s Downshire Civic Centre headquarters was a “workshop” to discuss proposals for the Killough lighthouse.

Council officials described the workshop as a “preliminary information session” for councillors and that prior to any plans being finalised or put in place for the lighthouse, a wide ranging public consultation is planned. 

However, the argument has cut little ice with campaigners and some politicians who have called on the local authority to invite the Commissioners to take part in a public meeting on the future of not only the sweeping beam, but the lighthouse itself.

Campaigners say they were denied the opportunity of hearing the Commissioners state their case on an issue of significant local importance and the subsequent response of local councillors.

The Lecale Lightkeepers said they were surprised to be excluded from the public gallery, given that the issue being discussed was a lighthouse’s sweeping beam, “not a nuclear installation.”

Rowallane councillor Patrick Brown, who tabled the original council motion in support of retaining the beam, said last week’s meeting was held in the council chamber where “democratic debate, discussion and scrutiny” of the local authority’s operations takes place.

“The chamber has a press area and a public gallery and I would contend that these facilities should always be open, regardless of what sort of meeting is being held in the chamber. The only exception would be when sensitive information is being discussed,” he said. “No reasoning was given as to why the CIL visit should have been in private.”

Councillor Dermot Curran said the event should have been held in the “full glare of the public” and asked why more meetings were now being arranged — at the ratepayers’ expense — when one open to all councillors, the press and the public would have been sufficient.

Slieve Croob councillor John Rice also expressed concern that only elected representatives were able to hear from the Commissioners.

“This meeting was about a lighthouse and it was ridiculous that the public, in particular those campaigning to retain the beam, were not permitted to listen to the debate,” he added.

Cllr Cadogan Enright, whose proposal that reporters and the public should have been admitted was defeated, believes there was no reason to exclude them. He claimed the attitude of “hiding” what was going on in council was becoming too common and needed to be stopped. 

“Transparency in council is the best way to win public trust,” he declared. “The Commissioners said they are not proposing to take away the existing apparatus except for the mercury bath. They propose putting a new rotating LED beam on the top of the lighthouse to demonstrate that they were listening to local people and plan to bring this all to consultation later in the year.”

Cllr Enright said the Commissioners confirmed that Newry, Mourne and Down Council could bring forward a partnership with a local preservation group in a manner similar to what happened at Loop Head lighthouse in Co Clare.

A council spokesman said: “This workshop was a preliminary information session for councillors and prior to any plans being finalised or put in place for St John’s Point lighthouse, a wide ranging public consultation is planned,” he said.

The spokesman added: “Councillors present also agreed to invite officers from the Commissioner of Irish Lights to a joint DEA Forum meeting to ensure information can be shared and that local stakeholders and communities are fully consulted upon any proposals for the lighthouse in the immediate future.”