Irish local authorities lack appropriate powers - Citizens’ Assembly told

Most recent study found local government weaker than in Russia, says former mayor

The Irish system of local Government is the weakest and most under funded in the EU with a Council of Europe Report in 2013 indicating that local authorities here have “less autonomy, less authority and less power” than counterparts even in Putin’s Russia, according to former lord mayor of Limerick Dr Diarmuid Scully.

Dr Scully, who is also an academic adviser to the Mayor of Limerick Implementation Group, told a Citizens’ Assembly meeting in Dublin on Saturday that the Irish system of local government is far from the norm.

“Of the 44 countries that signed the charter ( Council of Europe Charter on Local Self Government) Ireland was ranked 43rd. The only one to score worse than us was Moldova. That last report in 2013 found that of the 30 principles laid down in the charter we signed in 2002, we were found to be in breach of 22 of them.

“To put that in context, Putin’s Russia, which was still a member, was found to be in breach of seven. In other words a local authority in Ireland has less authority, less autonomy and less power than a local authority in Putin’s Russia. Our system is not normal.

“Of the 27 countries in the European Union obviously we come last. Last in terms of powers, last in terms of functions, last in terms of funding, last in terms of absolutely everything,” he said.

Dr Scully said the Council of Europe report, though nine years old, remains the most recent assessment of its kind and had also identified various issues that needed to be addressed including the lack of involvement of local authorities in education, in health care and public transport.

“The fact that there was no statutory input into policing... these are things that are normally done elsewhere but are not done here. The idea that the four Dublin authorities in Dublin don’t run the buses together is quite amazing. Again, it would not happen in any other capital city in Europe. It is very unusual.”

Dr Scully said in little has changed at local authority level since the report was published. In 2019 Dr Mary Murphy carried out a study for the Forsa trade union which found that Ireland came 27th out of 27 EU countries on powers, functions and funding of local Government.

He said most people don’t realise that we have the fewest councillors per head of population anywhere in the continent.

“We have far fewer representatives at local level than the rest of Europe,” he said.

In places like Limerick we are always talking about taking power from Dublin and taking it back to Limerick. In reality what you are talking about here taking it away from certain people in certain offices in Dublin that hold that power but don’t hold it on behalf of the people of Dublin. We have the weakest mayors in the EU.”

Dr Scully said contests for directly elected mayors in other countries seem to attract candidates of high quality across the board.

He added that the directly elected mayor of Dublin city is going to be “probably the foremost political position in the country, arguably more powerful than the Taoiseach.”

Dr Scully said it shouldn’t be any surprise if Mary Lou McDonald or Leo Varadkar or any of the Dublin TD’s put themselves forward for the role.

“This is a major role. It is an incredibly important role that you are designing. And deciding how it is going to work. We have gone through this process in Limerick but I do get the impression we are hostage to your decisions.

If the mayor of Dublin isn’t given the powers it is going to be hard to give them to the mayor of Limerick. And I think both cities need them. Because we need a thriving Dublin to have a successful Ireland.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham told the Citizens’ Assembly having been an MP for 16 years as well held a number of important roles, he ultimately fell out of love with the Westminster system.

“If anything drew me to go there it was to speak for the north of England and get a better deal for the north of England from what is a very London centric country as you know. I just found I couldn’t do it.

“When the new role of Mayor of Greater Manchester came along I felt that was more right for me. When you are out of Westminster you can do things so differently. When you are starting at a city level, it is a place first approach not a party first approach. It just makes parties work very differently.

“Five years on I like to think that the voice of the north of England is getting louder and stronger all of the time.”