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Frustrations abound but councillors can still achieve results

On Friday week, people all over Ireland will vote to elect 949 councillors. On May 31, my five-year term as a councillor will officially end, writes Justin Sinnott

The experience of being an elected local representative has been, on the whole, very positive and I will look back with a great sense of pride on my time as a Fingal County Council councillor.

On June 1, the new councils will be in place. 

Some councillors will have had decades of experience of local government while a significant number will be first-time councillors. We may well see council chambers across Ireland starting to reflect the diversity of the Irish population and I would sincerely hope that we see a significant increase in the number of woman and young people being elected. 

For local authorities to be relevant and, indeed, respected in their communities, we need to have diverse councils with a range of voices.

As I come to the end of my five-year term and indeed looking back on the election in 2014, I can say with all honesty that I have learned a hell of a lot. 

The experience of fighting a campaign at a time when the country was still feeling the effects of the recession and when issues such as water charges were very divisive prepared me and hardened me for the role of county councillor.

In many ways, once you decide to run and start knocking on doors, the public will almost view you as a councillor. The moment you choose to run is the moment you become a politician. You have to be prepared to be lumped in with the good and the bad.

Despite the noise and negativity on social media that candidates will experience, the fact is the vast majority of people are polite, respectful, and friendly. 

By and large I think people recognise and respect the fact that you are putting yourself forward for public service. 

We often see politicians remarking that they are getting a ‘great response on the doors’, however, I think this has as much to do with the political culture in Ireland and Irish people in general.

Every councillor elected after polling day on May 24 will have fought an exhausting campaign. 

Each and every one of them. No one gets elected by putting in a half-hearted campaign and that goes for those long-serving candidates who have multiple terms behind them.

They will have canvassed and spoken to hundreds of local people every week for months, the majority will have put up posters, dropped leaflets, and managed campaigns on social media. 

However, there will be no rest as they will then face their next challenge — the great divvy-up of positions for the next five years. 

Pacts between political parties and independents will divide up roles such as the office of mayor/deputy mayor, committee chairs, positions on state bodies such as education and training boards. 

Those who are members of a party will decide as a collective but those coming from smaller parties and independents will have to learn quickly and negotiate well if they want to get a specific position.

It is not easy as a new councillor and in a way it feels like fighting another mini-election. 

In my case, after I was elected following a three-day count, I went off for a few days’ break and switched my phone off. So the opportunity to join a pact didn’t arise.

In many respects, your first year as a councillor is the most important and a steep learning curve. 

While the conventional wisdom is that councillors have no real power, in reality, councillors do have significant powers in terms of the annual budget, most notably the Local Property Tax and County Development Plan.

The adoption of a County Development Plan is, without doubt, the most important function councils and councillors have as it sets out a vision for each county in important strategic areas such as planning and economic development. 

The relationship an individual councillor has with the council executive is an important one, in fact I would go as far as to say that it will shape what you can achieve and what you can deliver over five years.

In my experience, if you can build a positive working relationship with staff, you can achieve a lot for your community. In my case, Santry and Meakstown in the southern end of my ward in Swords were my core areas. They had put their trust in me to deliver for them. 

My aim was to ensure funding and specific projects were supported and approved by the council through, for example, mechanisms such as the Roads and Special Works programme. Essentially each councillor would make their case for their areas and the executive would make decisions accordingly.

 Seeing a project through from start to finish is the most rewarding part of the job and it does make the job all the more worthwhile.

Would I recommend the role? Without a shadow of a doubt, I would. There are times it is frustrating and there will always be some negativity, however, on balance you can do an awful lot for your community. As long as you remain positive, build relationships with colleagues and ignore the noise on social media you will achieve results. 

My advice to the new councillors is to stay focused on achieving things locally, ensure that you understand how funding works in your council, and don’t get side-tracked by national issues. Remember you were elected to local government so you need to deliver locally.

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