Noel Whelan: In defence of the Irish county councillor
I grew up in a councillor’s home. Our house was the first port of call for many who needed help. Among the typical visitors I recall was a bereaved widow seeking guidance, even before she went to talk to a solicitor
Being a councillor involves so much more than the formal role of contributing to discussions and decisions at council meetings and council sub-committees. It also involves making representations about council services or facilities for their area.
It has been a while since a current affairs programme has impacted on the public consciousness to the extent that Monday’s RTÉ Investigates did. The RTÉ special report on standards in public life reached beyond the usual political bubble and became a topic of conversation in workplaces, at seasonal gatherings and across social media. The actions of the three councillors featured in the programme not only caused shock and dismay in political circles but generated real anger among those who saw it.
The programme gained this reach in part because it was entertaining in a surreal and shocking way. So farcical were the scenes captured on secret camera that they drew the viewers in; one had to remind oneself that these were actually real public representatives and not comic actors.
Monday’s programme was a powerful combination of the best of investigative instinct, the new journalism of mining digital data and the enduring visual power of television.
Getting involved in local politics inevitably arises from an element of ego, in the same way that involvement in any profession in the public eye does. But for most councillors their political activism grows out of their community activism. It flows from their prominent participation in community organisations, local charitable initiatives or sporting activities or a combination of same.
Being a councillor involves so much more than the formal role of contributing to discussions and decisions at council meetings and council subcommittees. It also involves making representations about council services or facilities for their area. Less formally, councillors are often at the centre of a range of local activities. They are, for example, expected to lead the local parish fundraising drive, or be key organisers of community events or activities.
Podcast: reaction to RTE Investigates
On a more intimate level councillors become private advisers charting a course though local and national government bureaucracy for individuals or families sometimes at the most desperate or vulnerable moments of their lives. It is easy for those who are comfortable dealing with bureaucracy or have the resources or networks to call on solicitors, accountants or other professional help to disparage the localism or clientelism which endures as an element of our local politics.
I grew up in a councillor’s home. Our house was the first port of call for many who needed help. Among the typical visitors I recall was a new widow seeking guidance, even before she went to talk to a solicitor. She needed reassurance that the undertakers would wait to be paid and was given details of how to apply for the funeral grant. Parents with a child in Leaving Cert year came to inquire what grants might be available if their young one proved good enough to get into college.
Parents about to sign over a site to a child to build a house came seeking guidance on the planning process. They were taken through the key criteria involved such as whether they fell within the bounds of the village sewage scheme and, if not, were guided through the complex requirements about domestic waste management units and encouraged to get professional advice.
Groups called wondering what they could do about a proposed domestic or small retail development being built in their village. They were pointed to where they would find the plans in the council offices and were taken through the objections process and, if necessary, the appeals process.
All these callers, no matter what their place in the community or their political persuasion, were given patient, sensitive, discreet attention and a cup of tea.
Even now when our administration systems are better at engaging with the public and much of this information is available online, many people still choose or need someone they know to tackle this bureaucracy with them. They shouldn’t have to but they do.
Our councillors are now more educated, more tech-savvy and more professional in their organisation but the family of any public rep will still tell you they never seem to have a minute for themselves. Issues have changed but the needs are as intense. Nowadays, locals overwhelmed by the mortgage crisis, feeling they have nowhere else to turn, call on councillors. In many areas this weekend, councillors will be on the ground working with local officials co-ordinating the response to the threat or aftermath of flooding.
It was disgusting on Monday’s programme to see three public representatives seeking to leverage their standing as councillors for personal financial or business gain. It brought local government and public life generally into disrepute. It was appalling too because it distorts the perception of public representatives in the public mind. It disrespects the many councillors who give so much of their time and effort, most of it unpaid, solely in the service of their local areas.