Down News understands from a number of close sources this ‘surprise’ decision had in fact been considered by Councillor Coogan increasingly over many months. He had disagreed with his party’s strategy in the last Stormont and Council elections elections and progressively he felt personal differences have intervened to make his position untenable. He stood as the Sinn Féin candidate for Strangford in the last Assembly election.
Speaking at the Down District Council meeting on Monday evening, one could hear him picking through his works very carefully as he delivered his message to the chamber. He said it was “regrettable” that he had to make the decision but added that he was resolved and would not be turning back.
Although he feels overlooked in the Sinn Féin Assembly campaign election and frustrated in his role as a local Ballynahinch Councillor and as Council Chairman, Councillor Coogan has played an active part in the local government in Down District and was last year chairman of the former Down District Policing Partnership before it merged into the new Down Policing and Community Partnership.
As the crisis came to a head on Monday evening when Councillor Coogan announced his resignation from Sinn Féin, the other parties in the chamber were quite reticent over his decision.
Councillor Stephen Burns (SF) did call for his resignation as a councilor and to step down from the chair of the Council, but Councilor Coogan stood his ground and the matter did not go to a formal proposal and vote.
Down News understands that under ‘the Local Government Act 1972 as amended’ in Section 11.2, a “The Chairman shall unless he resigns or becomes disqualified, continue in his office until his successor becomes entitled to act.”
This clause in statute and noted in the Council Standing Orders secures Councillor Coogan’s position and he has vowed to see out his tenure as Council Chairman and as Ballynahinch Councillor.
There appears to be a huge rift between himself and his former party Sinn Féin who has now lost a councilor in the chamber.
But as Down Council tries to settle down in its new premises at the Downshire Estate, Down News has been told that Councillors do not relish this matter spilling into Council affairs in the run up to the next important Council election. Councillor Coogan has almost seven months to serve as Council Chairman.
South Down Sinn Féin has only released a short statement on the issue on Monday evening and sources at Stormont are being tight-lipped at the moment as it is not seen internally as a wider party issue.
Councillor Coogan has now joined the ranks of Terry Andrews and Cadogan Enright as Independents. Councillor Patrick Clarke, a former Independent has since the last local government election aligned with the Alliance Party.
The indications are that this matter will calm down and all parties will have to re-adjust to the new political landscape.
Councilor Coogan may well return in the next election as an Independent Republican, but given his position at the Council meeting on Monday evening, it can be said he has crossed his River Rubicon.