Parliamentary politics is at a low ebb right now. True, a settlement of sorts in relation to Irish Water between the two main parties has been secured, but the centre-ground politicians are struggling to come to terms with the outcome of the 2016 general election. One of the results is legislative stasis. Another is the postponement of difficult decisions. We have a Government in office but not to any huge extent, in power.
There are few signs that this state of affairs will change anytime soon, general election or no general election. The Left, populist parties and local independents have secured an effective mandate from the people to block reforms across a wide area. This situation cannot be changed while the two centre parties of Irish politics hang back from full cooperation.
The reasons for this reluctance are twofold: Most of their core supporters, particularly in Fianna Fáil are not yet ready for the abandonment of a rivalry dating back to the 1920s. And the leadership knows full well that any coalition, or partnership arrangement, would result in more ground being ceded to parties outside any arrangement, with Sinn Féin, in particular, a likely beneficiary. Yet right now, the economic challenges have never appeared to be greater. We need legislators willing to endorse measures which bring short term pain and the prospect of long-term gain for citizens.
One can wring one’s hands in despair, or one can begin to examine the best means of overcoming the roadblocks to reform of governance. A key aim must be the complete overhaul of the way in which we are administered and devolve responsibilities to the regions. Denmark is an interesting case in point. It is a country with a population of around 5.5 million, roughly similar in size to the Republic. During the 20th century, it managed to leapfrog countries like Ireland by developing strong indigenous industries, particularly in the agri-business sphere. Power has been devolved down the line to people living outside the capital city, Copenhagen. This would appear to have resulted in the practice of a more grown up still politics at local level.
In postwar Denmark, the power came to be split on a three-way basis between the centre, the counties and the municipalities. In 2007, a major reform of Danish local government was instituted. The existing 14 counties were abolished and replaced by five regions, each led by a regional council elected by popular suffrage. The number of municipalities was reduced from 271 to 98 with each also elected in a popular vote. Considerable thought has been given to the apportionment of public responsibilities between central government, the regions and local authorities.
The Danish state performs all tasks, including national defence, security and the conduct of foreign policy. The responsibilities devolved to the five new regional bodies are pretty wide ranging, however, including public health and out-patient medical care, specified social services, regional public transport, regional development, employment creation; tourism, as well as nature and the environment.
The municipalities, meanwhile, are responsible for the delivery of basic services but also deliver primary education and assistance to young people, preventative medicine and dental care and the rehabilitation of patients released from hospital. The municipalities run job centres, collect local taxes, maintain local roads and deal with citizens’ complaints.
Interestingly, the average size of a Danish municipality, at around 57,000 citizens, is around ten times the size of your average European local authority. They are of sufficient scale to reduce the likelihood of a takeover by groups of self-interested people and to allow for the development of effective local bodies.
The reforms were instituted with the aim of boosting local democracy and ensuring more efficiency across government. The reforms involve a transfer to the local level of around 15% of the resources previously held at the county level. An article in Denmark’s constitution sets out the rights of municipalities to run their own affairs though under the supervision of the central government.
The Danish model is well worth a close study. In this country, the Revenue has successfully administered our tax system since the 1990s. Ireland has developed successful state bodies such as the IDA, the NTMA and Teagasc.
A programme of local government reform here was instituted by the Fine Gael-Labour administration. Key structural changes envisaged under the plan, unveiled by former Environment Minister Phil Hogan, included a big reduction in the number of local authorities and elected members. There have been big changes in the areas of enterprise development and State training and proposed boundary changes have led to the usual hullabaloo. It is all a case of tinkering around the edges.
The development of a regional tier of government could be accompanied by a large reduction in the size of the Dáil and the Seanad, with the transfer of many of our local servant politicians to regional councils where they would control large swathes of taxpayers’ money under the new dispensation.
Regions, in particular, could be empowered to raise money for capital programmes by means of municipal bonds. Careful controls on expenditure would be exerted by the Department of Finance and by an Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General with added powers and resources.
Merrion Street would be only too aware of the potential for fiscal disaster if local government was let to be loose.
Under the new arrangements, many officials could be transferred from the centre to work in the regions at a lower cost to the taxpayer, boosting economic activity outside the capital. A similar transfer of private sector professional and specialist jobs would follow.
This would be very different to the sort of politically driven civil service dispersal programme which former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy unveiled back in 2003. At the time a civil service union leader, Sean O’ Riordan, suggested that civil service jobs were being “handed out like smarties”.
A greater devolution of power at the regional level should encourage more substantial figures to become involved in politics both at national and regional level. Our national legislature would hopefully be less dominated by local and factional considerations and our TDs and Senators could engage more in the consideration of long-term strategies and proper lawmaking.
All of this may, of course, be wishful thinking.
Many of our local politicians succumbed to the blandishments of the property industry where they were not already part and parcel of that industry. The resulting planning and financial catastrophe will take years to put right.
Any transfer of power should involve putting in place careful controls at the centre. Of course, our officials and incumbent TDs and Senators may well resist the loss of authority and the sheer power of inertia in Irish life should never be underestimated.
But what could garner support through a referendum is a growing realisation that our current system of log-jammed governance no longer works. One hopes that the changes will not be sought to be introduced against the background of yet another economic crisis.