Impact trade union also said local elections on May 23 could be the most — or least — important in the history of Irish local authorities depending on whether or not Environment Minister Phil Hogan gives “real powers and resources” to the new municipal districts which are set to replace town councils under the Local Government Reform Act.
Speaking at a conference on the future of local government in Dublin, the union’s national secretary, Peter Nolan, said new local authority structures offered a golden opportunity to establish the kind of “vibrant” local democracy common in most EU countries.
However, he said he feared the opportunity would be missed because the powers and staffing available to municipal districts would make them even less effective than current structures.
“Councillors and candidates working hard to get people excited about local democracy face an uphill battle because far too much power still remains at the centre,” said Mr Nolan.
“Sadly, there’s little indication that this is about to change, despite the opportunity presented by the Local Government Reform Act, which arguably heralds the biggest shake-up of local government in the history of the State.”
Mr Nolan claimed that no other European state has such weak local democracy. He said Irish local councillors remain the most powerless in the EU because central government determines virtually all local authority funding, staffing levels, and responsibility for services.
“We need real reforms that give local citizens and communities the same level of democracy and subsidiarity as other Europeans,” he said.
Mr Nolan also criticised successive governments for stripping local authorities of responsibility for refuse collection, driver licensing, education grants, direct responsibility for water provision, and other services.
“Local democracy badly needs some champions in Irish society,” he said. “If central authorities continue to take away local government responsibilities, local authorities will become empty shells. It will become impossible to demonstrate the need for local elections — or justify local taxes, including the property tax.”
At the same conference, Impact official Ashley Connolly said the provision of housing should be a key function of local authorities.
“Around 100,000 people are on social housing waiting lists across the country,” she said. “Even as we emerge from recession, rents are rising and the number of people sleeping rough on Dublin streets is on the increase. We can’t leave this to the private housing market.
“We need a properly- funded collaborative effort between local councils and not-for-profit agencies to provide affordable homes and address a growing housing and homelessness crisis.”