Local elections and local democracy

Markedly centralising policies are bad for the country

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott

Sir, – Paul Gillespie’s reflection on the status of local government in Ireland (“‘Overworked and underfunded’: Irish local government is hollow”, Opinion & Analysis, April 13th) is well-timed, and not alone given the imminence of the quinquennial council elections. For this month marks the 125th anniversary of the first elections to Ireland’s county councils. All of the county councils extant today can trace their roots – directly or indirectly – to those first elections in April 1899. The elections marked the first time that Irish people could vote for how they were represented in their counties and districts, with the franchise having been broadened to include all ratepayers and not alone the landed elite who had run matters for centuries previous. Indeed, the 1899 elections marked the first time that women could vote in any form of election on the island of Ireland, with their sex having debarred them from both local and parliamentary elections in earlier decades.

The outcome of the elections resulted in a new cohort of councillors anxious to show that Irish people could make a success of public administration as a precursor to a Home Rule government at national level. In the words of the French journalist L Paul Dubois who visited Ireland at the time, the inaugural local government elections of 1899 marked the “exit of the garrison and the entry of the people”. Such were the heady expectations of a century and a quarter ago. As your columnist elucidates, it is an open question whether such aspirations for local autonomy have been met under the markedly centralising policies of a native government. – Yours, etc,




Co Kildare.

Sir, – When Fine Gael and Labour abolished Town Councils in 2014 on the spurious grounds of cost and making the system more efficient, they disenfranchised the electorate and thereby removed an essential layer of local political representation and management of local affairs. A cursory glance of local government public representation shows that within the European Union, Ireland has the lowest level of democratic participation of the member states. With two exceptions, the average level of public representation within the European Union is five layers and some seven layers. Having suffered the ravages of two world wars, European countries place more weight on functioning participative democratic institutions than here in Ireland.

Municipal authority members are not overworked and underfunded – the reason being that they have little to no decision-making powers: the vast majority of decision-making at municipal authority level is by executive decisions. Where is democracy in that? Indeed, where is the need for public representation when such centralised decision-making denies the chosen representatives of the electorate a voice in the management and direction of their areas? The centralised power associated with the depth of government control should be very worrying for the electorate. It can be argued that we are no longer citizens of a republic but subjects of autocratic government control. Town councils must be reinstated.

The Government of Ireland Act 1898 was a significant gift by the British to the people of Ireland. In presenting this Act they recognised a maturity and vision of the Irish people that they deemed it sensible to let them manage their local government affairs. Towns like my home town of Westport thrived under the district council framework. Later this was streamlined and made more efficient with new designated urban district councils, which years later evolved into town councils. 2014 was to see with the stroke of a pen the abolition of the people’s right to self-manage their towns with a modicum of executive input. Today executive rule determines our future and we have no say. Yet the executive seems justified in levying substantial rates on commercial buildings, forcing businesses to close, with the loss of employment, while others hang on hoping for a better tomorrow. Trying to find out where the local rates revenue raised by the executive goes is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

As to the question posed by your columnist Paul Gillispie regarding municipal members being overworked, I say no. What is happening is that executive rule, decision-making and central government control are laying waste to a once vibrant country. Why? I suggest that our political parties, by placating the populist, liberal, woke agendas at the expense of democracy, are isolating the real majority with real concerns. Bring back town councils. Bring back local democracy. – Yours, etc,



Co Mayo.