What do councillors do all day?
On May 23rd Ireland will elect 950 people to city and county councils. But what do these local representatives do once elected, and is it what they’re supposed to be doing?
On the campaign trail: Cllr Sinéad Dooley (left) talks to Shane Murray in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Jeff Harvey/HR Photo
Dublin’s City Hall. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
‘I’ll be the hassled-looking blonde coming in the main door in a few minutes,” says Sinéad Dooley, a Fianna Fáil councillor, over the phone. When, moments later, she enters the lobby of the Tullamore Park Hotel she doesn’t look hassled at all.
“Hello, girls,” she says to some women from a local Weight Watchers group.
“Hello, Sinéad,” they say back.
In Tullamore everyone knows Dooley and Dooley knows everyone. Grandniece of the first Fianna Fáil TD for Laois-Offaly, Patrick Boland, and former personal assistant to Brian Cowen, she has been either a town or a county councillor for 10 years and both for the past four.
Full of quips, colloquialisms and empathetic nods, she never flags. When I comment on how sunny it is she says, “I arranged it.” When she talks to people she quickly places them in a family tree: “How did those windows work out for your father?” When people ask what she’s up to she says, “Baitin’ the roads.”
At Arden View Community Centre, where Dooley is holding a clinic – she usually makes individual appointments – a man is waiting. John is here to talk about a Men’s Shed he wants to establish. Dooley promises to look into it.
“Is there anything else?” she asks. There is. In John’s estate people keep parking on the green, and he wants the council to install bollards. Dooley thinks they might be unsightly. “Maybe we could do something more tasteful,” she suggests.
Another woman, a Traveller who’s new to the town, comes in to say she’s having problems getting a GP for her family, one of whom suffers from epilepsy. Dooley rings a GP there and then, but he’s out at lunch.
“Lunch, says you, what’s that?” Dooley says when she hangs up.
The woman begins to tell her other details of her life. The father of her children died tragically. Dooley knows the case. In fact she knows the woman’s sister. “Tell her that thing is sorted,” she says.
“Are you doing voting or something?” asks the woman. “How do you go about that?” Dooley gives her voter-registration forms for herself and her relatives.
Dooley estimates that 75 per cent of the people who come to her are from lower income brackets and many have issues with their entitlements. Sometimes people don’t know what she can do for them, but they’re overwhelmed and she can help them make sense of it.
“If people don’t come up to me [when I’m out] I’m in trouble, because it means I’m not approachable.”
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Some of a councillor’s work involves intimate, one-to-one exchanges. Some is more public, such as each council’s monthly meeting. At the April meeting of Dublin City Council, councillors are discussing tensions between the management of Croke Park and the residents on whom they are foisting extra Garth Brooks concerts. Many councillors weigh in to voice concern for the householders and disapproval of what they regard as the lack of co-operation from Croke Park management. There are several near-criminal Garth Brooks jokes.
“We don’t want a country-and-western riot on our hands in Dublin,” says Gerry Breen of Fine Gael.
Then the Lord Mayor shamelessly references Friends in Low Places and Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe likens the potential noise pollution to When the Thunder Rolls.
Philip Maguire, an assistant city manager, agrees that legislation may be required to deal with situations such as this. “If we don’t sort it we’re going to have an achy breaky heart every year,” he says. (Achy Breaky Heart is actually a song by Billy Ray Cyrus, not Garth Brooks.)
Apart from this the monthly council meeting is as serious-minded, procedural, necessary and dull as you might expect. Reams of important issues are whipped through: appointments, disposals of property, refurbishments of pavilions and tea rooms, amendments to development plans. Councillors greet most with swift agreement, some pressed up eagerly against their black microphones, others slouching nonchalantly in open-necked shirts.
My eyes are glazing over. “Are you having a ball, Patrick?” Mannix Flynn, who represents the South East Inner City ward as an Independent, asks as he passes.
Occasionally things get more heated. There are angry words about the time and money wasted on the Poolbeg incinerator project. There’s a passionate kerfuffle about the naming of Tara Street fire station. (The council voted to name it after Willie Bermingham, the Dublin firefighter who founded the charity Alone, but an existing policy said fire stations shouldn’t be named after people.)
A Sinn Féin motion to support the holding of a Border poll on a united Ireland gives an opportunity for some to assert their republican values and for others to stick the boot into Sinn Féin (whether they support the proposal or not).
Amid the real concerns is a fair bit of speechifying and grandstanding. Is it typical? When I go home I see a tweet by the Fine Gael councillor Kieran Binchy: “Councillors know that @patrickfreyne1 is in the chamber, and are all spouting on even more than usual to try and get in @the_irish_times #dcc”.
I ring Binchy to find out what it’s like when no journalists are around. “Council meetings? You’ve been to one. They’re nonsense,” he says. “Complete and utter. No work gets done at council meetings.”
Okay, he’s being a bit disingenuous, he concedes. “We do agree important things at the council meetings, but all those things happen very quickly, because the debate has happened beforehand, at area committee meetings.” (He stresses the importance of these.) “The issues over which we have little or no statutory power are often the ones people want to make noise on. People enjoy making thundering speeches about how something is a disgrace. [It] takes up much of the meeting.’”
The real work of the council, he says, is elsewhere.
Apart from clinics and canvassing, councillors go to a bewildering array of meetings and events. Over coffee, the Labour councillor Dermot Lacey takes out his diary and reads out a few days of activity.
There’s a meeting with residents about flooding, a meeting about parking on a road in Sandymount (“It would be solvable if the Civil Service had any imagination,” he says), a meeting with a woman about a housing issue, the launch of an anti-drug programme (“That’s partly because I’m a councillor and partially because I’m chair of the local drugs task force”), a meeting of Dublin Youth Service, an appearance at the joint policing committee (councillors meet local gardaí on behalf of local TDs), a meeting of the “naming committee” for which he is chairman, representing the Lord Mayor of Dublin at a launch of a housing report, giving a tour of Mansion House and attending a meeting of the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly (“In theory we monitor and suggest EU expenditure, but I’d be stunned if our comments were being taken seriously”).
Oh, and he also gatecrashed a Fine Gael meeting about the property tax, but I suspect that was just for the craic. And he spent a recent morning inspecting gutters with a council engineer after a complaint. “You might say it’s boring, but during the next heavy rain those houses won’t be flooded,” he says.
* * *
So they seem to be able to get things done for people, but is that what they’re supposed to do?
Councillors have a legislative and policy role and a representative role, says Dr Aodh Quinlivan of the department of government at Univeristy College Cork, and balancing the two is problematic. When it comes to the former, “legally there’s a very clear distinction there: the role of the councillors is to formulate policy, and it’s the job of the city or county manager to implement those policies,” he says.
“The implication is that the councillors are the most important people, but the reality is somewhat different: the councillors are usually part-timers and the manager is a full-time public servant . . . In theory they’re meant to prepare the development plan, but they don’t have planning qualifications or the time or the aptitude, so a lot of the policies tend to come from the executive side and are rubber-stamped by the councillors.”
The councillors’ advocacy and representative role is more visible and more straightforward. (The agenda for the Dublin City Council meeting featured 150 questions for the city manager on everything from dog-waste bins to playground surfaces.) As a result, says Quinlivan, “too many councillors get the balance wrong and spend 90 per cent of their time ‘grievance chasing’ and not enough time on the policy side of things.”
In fairness, he says, chasing grievances is an important part of the job, it’s what the public sees, and those “who do very well on the policy and legislative side but who ignore their local constituency don’t get re-elected”.
The fuzzy public perception of what councillors do, he says, allows councillors to abdicate responsibility where they actually have power (in tricky planning issues, for example) and to claim control where they have none.
“I often see councillors making promises about things over which the council has no control whatsoever,” says Binchy. “You knock on a door and they say, ‘There aren’t enough school places in my area?’ Do you say (a) the reason for that is bad planning decisions made in the last 15 years, (b) the Department of Education is actually responsible for school places, or (c) I’m aware of the problem and I’m trying to fix it? The councillor often lets on that they’ve power over things they don’t .”
Dermot Lacey agrees that public understanding of what the job entails is a bit vague. “I think councillors have less power than they should have, less power than the public think they have, but more power than a lot of councillors think they have.”
He outlines some significant changes that Dublin councillors made to this year’s development plan. “Local government works by the power of the councillors to nag, and probably the greatest power the councillors have is to simply wear down the officials until they agree to do something.”
He would like to see a more empowered local government.
* * *
Sinéad Dooley, the Tullamore councillor, is clear about the role of a councillor. “If you go in [to local politics] thinking that you’re going to move mountains and not be listening to people’s life stories you don’t know much about politics,” she says. “People often don’t know how to access their entitlements, don’t know their rights . . . There is an element of social work to it.”
We meet Emer Groonell of the local cumann and begin going from house to house in a local-authority estate.
Groonell has the voting register and whispers the name of the family as we come to the door, but Dooley often knows already. When nobody is there, Dooley scribbles a note on her campaign leaflet and stuffs it in the letter box.
Some conversations take a long time. One woman spends 15 minutes telling Dooley all about a traumatic hospital visit. She’s not looking for anything; she just wants to talk.
“I’d love to be a fly on the wall when other people canvass,” says Dooley. “Am I too long on a doorstep? They say you’re supposed to spend two or three minutes at a door . . . 17 doors an hour, but Lord Jesus I wouldn’t see the colour of it. People invite you in and tell you their life story and what do you?”
On the doorsteps people mention water charges, illegal dumping, troublesome boy racers, parking problems and issues with wheelchair access and housing transfers.
Most are polite. One young man looks a bit dazed. One woman shouts angrily not to open her gate (Later I see Groonell has written “rude” in the register across from that address).
A resident tentatively mentions that a neighbour has been dumping his rubbish in her garden. “But I don’t want him to get in trouble. He’s a nice man. He used to have such lovely flowers in his garden. I think he’s just given up.”
At one point Dooley’s phone rings, and she sighs. “This will be a whingy one.” She always responds to messages or “they’ll have rung two other councillors,” she says.
“I’ll get a marked register when this election is over, and it’s disheartening to see people you’ve worked very hard for who didn’t vote,” says Dooley. “The vote is my payment. It’s like walking out of Dunnes Stores with your basket of groceries and not paying for it.”