Diarmaid Ferriter: Why Irish local government is so useless

Every government since independence has looked to centralise power

While Fianna Fáil’s Seán MacEntee in opposition in 1929 decried the usurpation of powers by unelected officials, in time he was himself castigated for championing further central control over local authorities.

While Fianna Fáil’s Seán MacEntee in opposition in 1929 decried the usurpation of powers by unelected officials, in time he was himself castigated for championing further central control over local authorities.

 

Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy flexed his political muscles during the week in reacting to the failure of Dublin City Council to pass a budget. The council is smarting from broken commitments in relation to the loss of rates to Irish Water, and the department responded by insisting that had the council decided to reduce its local property tax by 5 per cent instead of 15 per cent, it would have raised the €8 million shortfall causing the commotion and has warned it can dismiss the council and replace it with a commissioner if the council does not pass a budget by December 1st.

Threatening recalcitrant local authorities in this way underlines one of the most contentious powers central government has over local government and can be seen as one of the legacies of the revolutionary period, especially the civil war, when chaos reigned in relation to local authority meetings and rates arrears. The first local government measure of the Free State in 1923 gave the minister for local government power to dissolve a local authority that did not properly discharge its duties and to appoint a government commissioner in its place. Kerry and Leitrim county councils were dismissed in 1923, followed by Cork and Dublin in 1924. The following year, rural district councils were abolished.

The abolitionists regarded local authorities as irksome and out of control, and also had legitimate concerns about corruption in local authority appointments, which, from 1926, the Local Appointments Commission was designed to clean up; it achieved much to ensure impartiality in such appointments.

But by 1929 another chapter saw the appointment of Philip Monahan as Cork city manager, with city management later extended to Limerick, Dublin and Waterford. The government liked to see centrally appointed managers as polished technocrats unsullied by the grubbiness of local government, but this development also suited them and their Fianna Fáil successors’ thirst for centralisation. While Fianna Fáil’s Seán MacEntee in opposition in 1929 decried the usurpation of powers by unelected officials – “a manager, wearing the jackboots of the minister will be able to walk rough shod over councillors desires and their opinions” – in time, MacEntee was himself castigated for championing further central control over local authorities.

‘Expensive anachronism’

A memorandum that appeared in the Department of the Taoiseach in 1933, a year after Fianna Fáil came to power, justified the management system, the author insisting it was necessary to prevent inefficiency and incompetence in local administration. There seemed to be quite an appetite for the abolition of local government on the grounds that “with the establishment of a central administration responsible to the people, and with modern improvements in transport and communications, governmental intervention and supervision is now feasible in respect of all national activities. The retention of local government bodies is, therefore, gradually becoming an expensive anachronism”.

In 2014, 80 town councils were abolished by the government in one swoop, getting rid of almost 700 councillors

It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest this mindset endured, given the gradual stripping away of local autonomy, the practice of postponing local elections (until local government was given constitutional protection in 1999) and eventually, the abolition of domestic rates in 1977 that deprived local authorities of a major source of independent funding. County management was introduced nationally in 1940; five years later it provoked a response from a contributor to the Bell magazine, who noted laconically: “it implies a rather awesome admission of failure, an admission that we were not in some respects, fit for self-government.”

Glaring gap

In his provocative observations on local government in the 1980s, historian Joe Lee caustically noted the glaring gap between the much-vaunted self-reliant community, so intrinsic in terms of propaganda about the ability of the Irish to run their own affairs, and the stern realities of the centralising state. Historically, Lee contended, England had moulded Ireland in its own centralising image and Ireland had been content to stick with this colonial imposition. Noting that the most successful European countries operated more decentralised decision-making systems, and that European regional local authorities accounted for a much higher proportion of total public expenditure than in Ireland, he remarked, “But decentralisation isn’t good enough for Ireland. It is scoffed at by the wise men as cumbersome and inefficient. Why? Partly, of course, as a rationalisation of the natural lust for power … but intellectually and emotionally it is because we have conditioned ourselves to think English.”

Lee’s is still a valid argument; after all, in 2014, 80 town councils were abolished by the government in one swoop, getting rid of almost 700 councillors.

In 1899 the first local government elections were held in Ireland. At that time, nationalist William O’Brien declared to the electorate “you, who up to the present had no more power in your own country than the badgers in the glen will have the power … to take the whole local government of the country in the people’s own hands”.

The badgers are still in the glen 120 years later.

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