Can we get by without our friendly local town councillors?
Mark Wall, an electrician and Labour councillor, is the current cathaoirleach. He and town clerk Brian O’Gorman (a dynamic enthusiast for Athy) pose for a photograph in front of six plaques, bearing the name of Wall’s predecessors. The first was Matthew J Minch in 1900. Wall is conscious that he will be the 112th and also the last, and acknowledges it with a tinge of sadness.
“This town council has worked for the whole of the people of Athy through the years,” he says. “Party allegiances, in the main, have been left outside the door.”
Athy is an attractive town, with many lovely heritage buildings. Walking through it, you can’t help noticing it also bears the pock-marks of the recession, with unfinished estates and a fair smattering of vacant retail premises.
The old town is dissected by the River Barrow and bordered by a branch of the Grand Canal and by the railway line. The new M9 motorway has made it attractive as a commuter satellite to Dublin and as a result its population has risen to 10,000.
The council does have some powers such as water services, roads, housing and planning, and employs 25 people. It raises some of its funding from rates, water charges and parking fees. But generally, councils are toothless tigers when it comes to autonomous powers.
At the meeting, Fianna Fáil’s Mark Dalton puts it best: “Power has been pared away like an onion over 40 to 50 years.” The symptoms of that? There is genuine frustration among the councillors about lack of response from central government about a plan to take over boarded-up properties to accommodate families living in overcrowded conditions. There is also anger among councillors that their refusal of an amusement arcade development in the town centre was overturned by An Bord Pleanála.
What happened during the course of the two-hour meeting gave a powerful evocation of the town and its good, and bad, points. It was also a telling illustration of the impact that decisions made at central government have at a micro level. A discussion on an unfinished estate (“the roads are haywire, the houses are haywire,” said a despairing Cllr Tom Redmond) reveals a Nama connection and a reminder of the building crash. Before entering the chamber, I knew the party allegiance of just one councillor, Wall. By the end, I knew all bar one because in a row over rates, Fianna Fáil’s decision to abolish rates in 1977 came up and true colours were revealed.
What shone through though was collegiality. The public service commitment they all displayed was very impressive. Every member seemed to be involved in voluntary organisations and initiatives of one kind or another: the GAA, the heritage centre (where an autumn school remembering Kildare explorer Ernest Shackleton is due to take place over the bank holiday weekend), the arts centre, Tidy Towns, river-tourism projects, and a skateboard park.