Matters of life and death for small towns of Ireland

 

I WOULDN'T have the strength of character to handle that much lottery. Not if it was mine. I wonder how I'd feel if I were a civil servant, and as a matter of routine huge sums for disbursement crossed my desk - which is what the National Lottery profits do.

I suppose I wouldn't feel anything. I'd just look at the guidelines and implement them. The guidelines which govern the funnelling into public life of National Lottery money are now being revised, we are told, by an expert committee.

I'll be interested to see what that committee decides. Because money is power. Money is one of the players in the complex and obscure operations that constitute the grassroots life of this society. I hope the committee will have an understanding of how things work in practice, down at the bottom, and at the same time, possess a panoramic view of the national picture. Though I don't suppose it will. No other body does.

Let me give an example of just how the grand social design, or lack of it, affects one very small and very local matter. "I made the Iliad from such a local row," Homer famously told Patrick Kavanagh, and the issue that I have in mind happens to be agitating community conscious people in Clones, in Kavanagh's county of Monaghan.

It raises a range of questions about what "community development" means and what "local government" means, and how they relate to each other, not just in Monaghan but anywhere in the country. It raises questions about the towns of Ireland - which of them will be helped survive and which will be allowed to die.

It raises questions about the gatekeepers in this electoral democracy who are often enough quite unelected. It raises questions about the practice rather than the principle of distributing Lottery money.

OUTSIDERS, if they studied them for years, would never understand the nuances of a local Irish row. But as far as I understand it, the problem is as follows.

The only county service situated in Clones is the administrative headquarters of the county library service. It is based in the Market House in the Diamond - a handsome but very neglected building in one of the most charming but least known urban spaces in the country.

The building is in such a poor state that the union is very worried about the workers' safety there. It is also too small for its warehousing function. Something has to be done. The something the county management proposed doing was to move the library headquarters to Monaghan town, to be an anchor tenant in a new shopping centre there, in an area designated for urban renewal relief.

As you can see, issues arise here as they might in any small town in the country about overall planning, and about trying to integrate different kinds of development.

The local people in Clones want to know why another site in their town has not been considered for the library headquarters. They feel that the urban tax relief scheme draws everything towards the one designated area. Obviously, Monaghan town wants its new shopping centre to be a success, and obviously the developers there would welcome any lease as rock solid as the library service's would be.

The county officials propose leaving a branch library in Clones. But Clones, a town which has suffered more than most from isolation, because of road closures along the Border with Northern Ireland, wants to keep anything it has got, even a small facility like, the hook storage and administration one and it wants to keep what vitality it has, even the mere five or six people who work in the library headquarters, none of whom actually lives in Clones.

County managers and secretaries have to put their proposals to the county council, of course, and last time out, the councillors turned the proposals down. There are a fair few Clones based politicians on the council. But the problem won't go away.

Meanwhile, there is a specific scheme to help libraries from Lottery money, administered through the Department of the Environment. A county manager or librarian - I take it this is how it works - submits an application to the Department: the Department checks it out with a body I've only just found out about called the Library Council, and with any luck some of the considerable sum spent on this scheme comes one's way.

But in this case, the Monaghan county manager is quoted in the local paper as saying: "We just don't count when it comes to the allocation of grants for libraries."

You can see how unsatisfactory all this is. It isn't at all clear who, where, took what decision and on what grounds. All that's clear is that there was no grant for Clones.

But there could be. The kind of grant that is available for a lease in Monaghan is not dependent on the library building being in an urban renewal development area it is available for a library anywhere. If the library goes into the new shopping centre the commercial venture will be State aided. If it is somehow kept in Clones, the civic life and morale of the town will he State aided.

There is no person or body at State level to note these implications. The Lottery money is not disbursed with an eye towards managing them. It is part of the old system - it reacts to what is asked of it. It doesn't play the dynamic role that the £610 million paid into the national coffers so far - might have played.

Clones is in the same position as a lot of small towns, except that everything in Clones is worse than elsewhere. The building of shopping centres in the big towns is hurting it. There's nothing to be done about that, that I can see. People choose to get into their cars and drive to a modern shopping centre, rather than do their shopping along a town street, for many good reasons. But this means that special thought has to go into finding new functions for the smaller towns.

WHAT power has even the most dynamic community group against the entrenched powers within the system? The moment the question is articulated you see that the Lottery money, for all the good intentions of the people who planned it, is not empowering - it is not something an individual or group can gain access to outside of, or in parallel with, or as an alternative to existing systems. It is within the old systems.

The civil servants in the departments in Dublin, and the county management team in Monaghan, are without a doubt being reasonable and prudent in what they propose for the library service. But why can't people in a country as small as ours make their own passionate pleas for special funds like the Lottery money?

There are community groups everywhere, now, palpably able and willing to manage funds. Why not find ways of devolving Lottery money back to the people, where it came from?