Until now, political parties have had no input into the distribution of Leader funds, the Carlow and Kilkenny TD told attendees at a conference in Cork hosted by Irish Local Development Network (ILDN), the nationwide umbrella body for Leader groups.
The ILDN conference was organised as a response to Environment Minister Phil Hogan’s alignment proposal to create socio-ecomomic councils (SECs), which would bring core Leader functions, including control of finances, under the wings of county managers in local authorities nationwide.
“My fear is alignment will give local representatives too great an influence,” said Ms Phelan. “Local development companies (LDCs) have always remained unattached politically. Nobody had to worry about giving more funding to one party over a rival party. I have grave concerns this independence will be damaged by alignment.”
Nonetheless, Ms Phelan said local authorities can make a valuable contribution to Leader, acting as a link to central Government.
She said: “LDCs have been acting as a rebalancing mechanism for rural communities ever since they were first established in 1991. I think the Government has a lack of understanding of how LDCs work. You really need to experience them first-hand to see their full value.”
Ms Phelan has worked on Leader projects in her native south Kilkenny town of Graiguenamanagh. Some 66% of its 2,000 residents are out of work. She says the town owes most its public amenities and jobs to the support of Kilkenny Leader Partnership (KLP).
Local projects supported by KLP include the Silaire Wood walkway amenity, an astro turf pitch near the local school, a new boat house for the regatta and rowing clubs, the conversion of an old mill into a restaurant, and the restoration of the once derelict parish hall.
“Without Leader projects, Graiguenamanagh would have gone over the edge long ago,” she said.
Dublin-based barrister Eoin O’Shea quoted from a 2010 European Court of Auditors report which cited Ireland’s LDCs as a model for other member states to follow.
However, community unrest has been increasing. In the last two weeks, thousands of Leader funding beneficiaries have joined protests against Minister Hogan’s proposals.
In response, and armed with a report by UL lecturer Dr Brendan O’Keeffe, the ILDN is calling on the State to create a socio-economic commission in favour of the SECs.
This commission would promote collaboration between state agencies and local development groups, avoiding the duplication of functions. The move would give local authorities oversight, while protecting a bonus worth up to €100m if Ireland conforms to the EU’s decentralisation tenets.