We’ve been hung out to dry

We have had town government since the Normans came here, 800 years ago. On the cusp of the centenary of 1916, the Fine Gael Minister for the Local Government of the day abolished the ‘bottom’ tier of local government, with the support of the joint-principal opposition party, Fianna Fáil.

This was in keeping with the policy of the permanent government, who are in denial about the merits of communities making their own choices — different choices — including acting competitively with others, and the contentment such self-local-government gives to them, and their right to represent their communities. It was Fianna Fáil’s Minister, P Flynn, who commissioned the distinguished advocate of local government, Tom Barrington, to chair an advisory committee on Local Government (1991). No elected representative was on this committee, but managers and persons expected to advocate expenditure curtailment were there. Tom Barrington told me later, that his ‘riding instructions’ were to favour the county council. Administrative efficiency was paramount. Ironically, published figures show that the expenditure per employee in town councils (UDCs) was larger than that of county councils, affirming the former as the more efficient.

Barrington’s Report reproduced a Council of Europe table listing 31 common functions of local government showing which of 15 European states effected them (1981). Though some changes have occurred since, Ireland drew blank in 21 of the 31 items. No other state came remotely near this level of centralised government. Years later the OECD produced a similar table. Ireland, then as in 1981, was the sole country where local government didn’t run primary and most secondary schools. Barrington’s committee were divided as to the future of sub-county government. One option they mooted was elected district councils. We now have this, but simultaneously they have been denied autonomy: their every decision, including the powers of town councils they subsumed, is subject to the full county council. This is a mockery.

A better solution would be town councils — and more of them — with substantial hinterlands included and outsourcing when smart to do so.

The contempt shown for subsidiarity and town self-government is exemplified in Ireland’s tardy reaction to the European Charter of Local Self Government (1985). This required a constitutional bulwark to protect citizens’ rights to local self-government. We were eventually allowed to vote in a referendum in 1999 in which the State grudgingly recognised the role of local government, but offered no right of continuity or right of establishing same. The anger of the electorate was shown: 8.3% spoiled their ballot papers. We signed the Charter in 2002: a Pyrrhic victory for democracy.

As I write from Leixlip (pop. —15,500, with non-residential presence of around 8,000 workers in the two largest plants in the county), the weeds on the town’s main streets — formerly kept at bay by the town council’s contractor — are nearly a foot high. We have no one to speak on our collective behalf. Truly Ireland may be the best little country to do business in and for prescriptive politics unfettered by troublesome citizens; we citizens have been hung out to dry.

John Colgan

Dublin Road Street


Co Kildare

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

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