A Belfast city councillor has been suspended from council duties for four months while investigations are carried out into complaints about public statements she made about Islam.
Independent councillor Jolene Bunting, who formerly represented the TUV, revealed on social media that she had been suspended from her duties “for criticising Islam”.
“This is a dark day for democracy and freedom of speech,” the Greater Shankill representative, who has been linked with the far-right Britain First group, posted on her Facebook page.
A statement issued by the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards said the Acting Commissioner had decided to suspend Councillor Bunting for four months while an investigation into complaints against her are ongoing.
The decision comes after an Interim Adjudication Hearing held at the Resolution Centre in Belfast on September 4.
“The Acting Commissioner Mr Ian Gordon found that there was prima facie evidence that Councillor Bunting had failed to comply with the Local Government Code of Conduct. He determined that a member of the public, knowing all of the relevant facts, would reasonably consider that her conduct had brought her position as a councillor and that of the council into disrepute,” the statement said.
“The Acting Commissioner found it likely that there has been continuing reputational damage to the City Council and that repeated failures by the respondent to comply with the code and subsequent publicity is likely to have had a negative impact on public confidence.
“He highlighted that the aim of the Code is to improve the standard of conduct expected of councillors and to foster public confidence in the ethical standards regime.
“The Acting Commissioner requested that the Interim Hearing be held after receiving an Interim Report on the complaints made against Councillor Bunting. Given the frequent, ongoing, repetitive and escalating nature of the alleged breaches of the Code, the Deputy Commissioner believed that suspension of the councillor was necessary while his full investigation into the complaints continued.”
The statement continued: “The complaints arose from public statements made by the councillor in relation to the Islamic religion, her association with the far-right group Britain First, and the publication of a meme on social media.
“The Hearing was told that from 15 December 2017 to 14 August 2018, 14 complaints were made against Councillor Bunting. One complaint was signed by 87 complainants, while another was signed by a total of 79 members of the public.
“The complaints related to a number of incidents, including:
• A video published online of Councillor Bunting and Ms Jayda Fransen, Deputy Leader of Britain First, speaking outside the Belfast Islamic Centre on 13 December 2017
• A visit to Belfast City Hall Council Chamber by Councillor Bunting and Ms Fransen in January 2018
• A full meeting of Belfast City Council on 3 January 2018
• A social media posting of a cartoon meme on 3 May 2018
“The Acting Commissioner’s role at the Interim Hearing stage was to determine whether or not there was ‘prima facie evidence’ of a failure by the respondent to comply with the code. Based on the Deputy Commissioner’s Interim report and the submissions made at the Hearing, he found there had been a failure to comply.
“He was not convinced by the Councillor’s assertion that her association with Britain First was to encourage it to become more moderate and to improve its structure. He found that the events took place over a period of time, and appeared to be planned and their content premeditated.
“The visit to the Council Chamber, where Ms Fransen was allowed to wear the ceremonial robes and make comments on her forthcoming trial relating to the incitement of hatred of Muslims, were actions which raised questions about the respondent’s conduct as a councillor.
“The Acting Commissioner viewed the webcast of the council meeting of 3 January 2018 where Councillor Bunting can be seen and heard to make specific reference to Islam and the Quran, apparently in the context of ‘problematic sections’ of society. He did not accept the submissions made on her behalf that ‘at no time ... did she mention Islam at any stage during that exchange’, and found that her contribution to the debate showed there was prima facie evidence that she had failed to comply with the code.
“In relation to the social media meme, he found that there was prima facie evidence that the content was sectarian and racist in nature.
“The Acting Commissioner took into account submissions about the significant impact which suspension would have on the councillor, both as a councillor and in her personal life. He was satisfied that, in this case, the ‘maintenance of public confidence’ outweighed the personal and financial impact on the respondent.”
The decision of the Acting Commissioner was to suspend Councillor Bunting for a period of four months.
The Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards statement added: “In making his decision he carefully considered Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides the right to freedom of expression. He noted that councillors operate in a political environment and must be free to make political points and discuss matters of public concern without undue interference.
“In all the circumstances of this case though, he was satisfied that an interim suspension was necessary, proportionate, and in pursuit of a legitimate aim.”
The Deputy Commissioner’s investigation continues. A full hearing will be held at a time yet to be determined.
It’s understood Cllr Bunting can appeal to the High Court against this decision in accordance with the provisions of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014.
In a video statement posted on her Facebook page, Cllr Bunting described the suspension as “an absolute joke” and said her legal team are “looking into taking it to the High Court to appeal it.”