Knockagh DUP Councillor Marc Collins has said “at no point did he intend any harm” in relation to social media tweets which have resulted in an eight-month suspension from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC), a standards watchdog report has stated.
The Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards has sanctioned the elected representative after a complaint against him was upheld.
The report stated:
“As a councillor, your actions and behaviour are subject to a higher level of expectation and scrutiny than those of other members of the public. Therefore, your actions – in either your public life or your private life – have the potential to adversely impact on your position as a councillor or your council.”
However, the Acting Commissioner Katrin Shaw said that she did not consider that the respondent had brought his council into disrepute.
A report published by the standards body said that the complaint concerned a re-tweet from Cllr Collins’ Twitter handle ‘@marccollinsDUP’ on 19 November 2019 and a “related tweet” on November 18 2019 by Cllr Collins was provided during the course of the investigation.
The original tweet “promoted a banner erected in the Shankill area of Belfast. The banner referenced in the tweet made allegations against several members of the Finucane family, including John Finucane who was Sinn Féin’s Westminster election candidate for North Belfast at that time”, the report said.
Cllr Collins has served as a councillor on MEABC since May 2019. An investigation by the Commissioner’s Director of Investigation (now Acting Commissioner) commenced on December 5, 2019.
The investigation concluded that evidence suggested “potential breaches of the Local Government Code of Conduct” and that there was “no evidence that Cllr Collins made any effort to distance himself from the original tweet” and “his re-tweet amounted to an endorsement of this tweet and the banners which had been erected”.
The report stated:
“Councillor Collins provided his comments on the complaint on 16 December 2019 which related to the tweet on 19 November 2019. He stated that this tweet was ‘a re-tweet, therefore, this content did not originate from [his] account and [he] did not write it [him]self’. Councillor Collins also stated that ‘a re-tweet does not necessarily indicate support’.”
It was also noted: “I have re-tweeted a number of different posts, pictures, articles, statements, etc. which are of interest to me. This does not mean I support everything which I re-tweet, it means that it is either of current significance or personal interest to me.
“At the time of this re-tweet, the story of these banners was current and was appearing in the news, hence they were significant and of interest to me in the political world, but as I have already said this does not mean that I support the content.”
Cllr Collins further denied that he had “subsequently deleted his Twitter account to avoid public scrutiny and accountability. He stated the ‘temporary de-activation of [his] account (not deleting) is down to the sheer amount of vile and personal abuse I was receiving from nameless accounts on the platform… De-activating [his] account for a while seemed like the only option for [him]”, the report said.
The report also indicated that Cllr Collins did not respond to requests from the Acting Deputy Commissioner to schedule an interview or respond to her findings in a draft investigation report .
Apologising for his lack of engagement with NILGCFS, Cllr Collins said:
“I understand that not engaging with the investigation can in itself be viewed as a breach of the code, however as stated above I found myself overwhelmed with the investigation and other personal issues which were, and still are, ongoing.
“I have never tried to refute that the tweet and re-tweet were posted by myself, however I do refute the incinuation (sic) that by re-tweeting a picture of the banners in question, this automatically infers support for them. At the time I would have regarded it an unwritten rule that re-tweets are not necessarily endorsements however in hindsight I now recognise that a disclaimer probably should have been placed in my Twitter bio indicating this.
“As I stated in my original correspondence to your office, these banners were a current affair and of significant public interest. At no point did I intend any harm on Mr Finucane or his family.”
A DUP spokesperson said:
“The investigation outcome has just been published. We will consider the finding.”
Cllr Collins did not reply to requests from the Local Democracy Reporting Service for a comment.