The postponement of next year's local elections would be an anti-democratic, retrograde step, which the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats Government should not promote. During the past weeks, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, has spoken guardedly of rescheduling these elections so that they might be held in tandem with elections to the European Parliament in 1999. And the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Mr Dempsey, is due to introduce legislation to the Dail dealing with this and other matters before Christmas.
The rescheduling of elections would not only undermine public confidence in an already feeble system of local government, it would diminish the accountability of councillors and make a farce of the protestations of successive governments that they regarded local government reform as a priority.
In 1990, the previous Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats government decided, as an element of such reform, to synchronise all county, corporation and sub-county elections in 1998. As a result, county councillors elected in 1992 were to enjoy a maximum seven-year term, while urban councillors and town commissioners elected in 1994 would have a four-year term in office. The Coalition Government now seems bent on abandoning such long-term planning in favour a stop-gap measure designed to inflate artificially voter turnout for the European elections. It is a shabby way to treat the electorate and the very structure of our democratic system.
That there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Europe has been recognised for some time, but massaging the electoral turnout will not solve the problem. The Government and opposition parties should, instead, examine the reasons why Irish voters regard the European Parliament as less relevant than local elections. In 1994, the Irish turnout in the election was fourth-lowest in the EU, at 44 per cent, while Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium exceeded 70 per cent. Holding the local and European elections together would certainly increase the size of the poll, but at what cost? On the last occasion this was done, in 1979, more than 4 per cent of the electorate spoiled their European ballot papers in protest. And the figure was 3 per cent when the general election of 1989 was used to bolster the European turnout.
The message is clear. The public does not like being presented with too many choices on a single day. If the Government is serious about the European Parliament and the gradual devolution of powers to it within a slowly integrating EU, it should educate the Irish electorate as to its importance. Tricking around with the timing of council elections does nothing but damage democracy and evade key responsibilities.