A Causeway Coast and Glens Borough councillor found to have broken the local government code of conduct says he will fight any sanction imposed.
There was uproar from Unionists last year when Independent Councillor Padraig McShane from Ballycastle was pictured beside an Irish tricolour and a Palestine flag during a private visit to the council chamber in Coleraine.
At an adjudication hearing, in the same council building on Tuesday, Ian Gordon, Acting Local Government Standards Commissioner, ruled the councillor had breached four parts of the code.
He adjourned the hearing until a later date when he will outline what sanction, if any, he will impose.
Councillor McShane (44), is only the second councillor in Northern Ireland to have been found to have broken the code of conduct.
On Wednesday, in a statement issued through his solicitor Michael Brentnall, Mr McShane said: “I was elected to articulate the views and opinions of my constituents, and I have been found guilty of doing just that.
“Any sanction imposed upon me will be challenged on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights in the appropriate forum. The European Convention protects Freedom of Speech rights in particular those of elected politicians, and I expect to be vindicated on that basis.”
The controversy flared in June last year when Mr McShane along with Londonderry Independent Councillors Gary Donnelly and Darren O’Reilly, were pictured sitting behind the flags with Gaza official Mohamed Al-Halabi.
Councillor McShane has links with Gaza and said he was taking his visitors on a tour of the council offices where he is a member.
Finding the councillor breached the code of conduct Mr Gordon said flags are a “divisive and emotive” issue and he said the “surreptitious manner” of what he had done amounted to a mis-use of the council chamber.
Mr Gordon said a complaint had been made by the DUP.
Earlier during the hearing, Mr Gordon said they were there to adjudicate on whether Cllr McShane had failed to comply with the code. Mr Gordon noted Cllr McShane nor a legal representative were present.
Peter Coll QC, acting for the Deputy Local Government Commissioner for Standards, said Mr McShane was aware of the hearing but had indicated he was not taking part.
Mr Gordon said the complaint alleged that Mr McShane displayed an Irish tricolour flag and a Palestine flag in the chamber of the council headquarters. He said a photo appeared in the press showing the councillor present with two councillors and an official from Gaza.
The complainant believed Mr McShane had sought to improperly gain a political advantage and claimed that the council was also brought into disrepute.
Mr Coll said Mr McShane obtained verbal consent from the council to show his visitors around the council chamber and in June 2015, he arrived at the chamber along with four men and later in the day the councillor and visitors returned and were again in the chamber.
Later, he said, a photo appeared in the press showing the group in front of the flags.
The hearing heard in a statement from former DUP mayor of the council, Michelle Knight-McQuillan, that she was asked by a council staff member about the request from Mr McShane to bring in visitors and she did not refuse as it was a public building and there was no mention of photos and if such a request had been made she would not have given permission.
When she heard what happened she said she “felt let down, I felt my position had been abused and my trust had been abused”. She said there had been no flags in the council chamber since a Royal British Legion flag which was there during the previous Coleraine Borough Council was returned to the Legion.
The hearing heard details of a phone call between Mr McShane and a member of the Standards Commissioner’s office. Cllr McShane told the official the complaint was “simply an example of the DUP playing party politics and should not be taken seriously”.
The councillor said it was “bad enough” that his Palestinian visitor had to “endure” walking under a Union flag to enter the council building which the councillor claimed, to his visitor, was “akin to the ISIS flag”.
The council chief executive David Jackson, in a statement to the hearing, said the councillor’s actions were “unacceptable” and he had not given permission for flags to be brought in to the chamber considering the sensitivities of flags. He said other councillors had described the incident as a “publicity stunt” and that other councillors thought it was “so outrageous it was nearly funny”.
Mr Jackson said staff now have procedures in place in an attempt to stop a repeat of such incidents. He added: “I would have expected any democratically elected representatives would have respected the chamber.”
Mr Coll said in a response from Mr McShane’s solicitor to the Standards Commission, Mr McShane said he had links to Gaza on “humanitarian grounds”.
The hearing also heard Mr McShane made reference to the “preferential treatment” of the Union flag at the council and the “continued injustice of the Israeli occupation of Palestine”.
Mr Coll claimed the councillor had “surreptitiously” abused the council facilities to “engage in a solo run” of flying flags. He said it was an “outrageous breach” of the council facility.
Mr Coll said the Commission denied they were part of a “wider political agenda” against the councillor.