A Local Column For Local People

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From top: Cork city; Dan Boyle

The proposed introduction of ‘unitary authorities’ – “two units of the lowest level of government” – for Cork and Galway – is a further assault on democracy in Ireland.

Dan Boyle writes:

Forgive me for being parochial for once….

You may dismiss what follows as the ravings of one who clings to the delusion of a ‘real’ capital. If so move on. What I write here is in no way informed by the banter that makes up that mythological argument.

I’m angry. More angry than I’ve been about any political issue for a long, long time.
I see what is happening not only as an undermining of my own sense of place, but also having me question what faith, if any, we place on democratic values in this country.

Recommendations are being made in Cork and Galway that would see unitary authorities being established in both counties.

Put this into context. Cork county with an area of 7500 sq km, and Galway county at 6000 sq km, together are larger in size than Northern Ireland. Between them their area is the equivalent of the size of three European Union member countries – Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta.

Their collective population is more than twice that of Iceland. And yet it is being thought sufficient that two units of the lowest level of government can administer areas of this size.

It’s something that I should have seen coming. During John Gormley’s tenure as Minister for the Environment, a Green Paper on local government was produced. I found it anodyne. It was written by civil servants in civil service speak. The verbs used – review, examine, investigate – were deliberately vague to justify any subsequent decision. Or no decisions at all.

After a further year a draft White Paper was given to us in the Green parliamentary party. As we were considering its contents Fianna Fáil ‘sources’ were briefing the media that town councils were to be abolished, something they then thought to be a good thing.

I was horrified. The thrust of Green policy in this area was to make democracy more diffuse. The proposal had come from civil servants within the department in pursuit of a long term policy agenda. I told John I couldn’t stand over that. It seemed to confirm his own qualms. The draft White Paper was withdrawn and was never published.

Another proposal in that discarded paper was that a unitary authority be established in Limerick. Only Limerick was mentioned. There seemed to be some logic in sharing workforces and administration, but why would Limerick have to lose its City Council?

When Phil Hogan became Minister he enthusiastically adopted his officials’ recommendations. Town Councils were abolished. Limerick and Waterford became unitary authorities. Regret was expressed, a regret that counted for nothing.

Later, without any sense of irony, Brendan Howlin mused that his biggest regret, during this government, was having to abolish town councils. The new Minister for the Environment (and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) doesn’t seem to be deviating from his officials’ policy.

Indeed it has been Alan Kelly who has established the review groups for Cork and Galway. Groups that seem determined to deliver their pre-determined views to apply a further scalpel to local democracy in this country.

Brian O’Nolan (who as a civil servant worked at the Customs House for the then Department of Local Government) or his alter egos of Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, could not concoct a more surreal situation, where the department he worked for wanted to bring about less local government.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party Td. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendanboyle

52 thoughts on “A Local Column For Local People

    1. cluster

      Yup, agreed, there may well be reasons why all this is a bad thing but I am left mystified at the end of it.

      As far as I am concerned both our TD boundaries & national govt boundaries are too small – they take in too few people and we end up with excessive attention being given to parochial concerns by bodies which have no benefits of scale or specialisation.

    1. scottser

      you wrote this in 2010? either way, i would have thought that FG’s re-jig of the electoral areas will be far more telling in terms of maximising their voter spread next year. i would also have thought that FG’s attempted abolition of the seanad was a far bigger threat to our democracy, or that local authority funding being linked to LPT would have more of a bearing on local service provision than any other factor.

      i read the pece dan, but apart from your rant, i didn’t get much out of it.

  1. ahjayzis

    “I’m angry. More angry than I’ve been about any political issue for a long, long time.”

    Homelessness, our obligations to refugees, rack rents, unemployment, child poverty, aside or?

    1. Dan Boyle

      I expected that. The more local and real our democracy is, the more able we should be able to deal with our economic and social problems. The further from the problems decisions are made the longer it will take for problems to be tackled.

      1. ahjayzis

        Poorly phrased then, perhaps. I agree, but it goes against every fibre of an Irish government party’s being to devolve even a scintilla of power – unless it’s tax/fee collection, which in reality is just central government cost-saving. It’d be an erosion of their power of patronage. Patronage in all it’s forms has to go before devolution is even a possibility.

      2. cluster

        ‘The more local and real our democracy is, the more able we should be able to deal with our economic and social problems’

        This may or may not be true – but it needs more back-up than that, Dan.

        And where would you stop with it? Should every street have its own local govt? What is the optimum population or land area served by a ‘unitary authority’?

          1. Dan Boyle

            And yes some decisions at street level can be very effective. Check out Porto Alegre in Brazil on how they construct their annual city budget.

  2. Clampers Outside!

    Is Phil Hogan the thickest dumbest oaf of a gobsh*te to ever walk on this island?
    Are the chickens are running the hen house?
    Are we there yet?
    What does an implosion look like?
    Fuzzy wuzzy was a woman?

    So many important questions, so little time, so many cat videos…. it’s just too much.

  3. Rob_G

    Dan’s silly comparisons are letting him down.

    “Between them their area is the equivalent of the size of three European Union member countries – Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta” – these are three very, very small countries.

    “Their collective population is more than twice that of Iceland.” – Iceland’s population is 323,000. While their collective population is more than twice the size of Iceland, it is still significantly less than Birmingham (which is governed by a single local government body).

    1. Dan Boyle

      Birmingham is the biggest local authority in EUROPE. It has 120 members, 79 members of the Labour Party. In effect most of the services are provided by 11 district councils, the members of which double up as city councillors. It has a land area equivalent of Malta, and twenty times less than that of counties Cork and Galway together. It is no example to emulate.

      1. Rob_G

        Galway’s population is 250,000, and Cork’s is 518,000, so not quite on the same scale as Birmingham. I just wanted to point out that your comparisons in the form of

        (Galway + Cork) = X times the size of Y

        – are not very helpful. Each county will have its own council; they won’t be governed as part of a Cork/Galway Mega-Council, so why keep lumping them together in your comparisons?

        1. Dan Boyle

          Effective local government needs critical mass in terms of area and critical mass in terms of population. The comparisons I make all have local government below national or regional government. You come with some comparison where land areas and population have only one unit of local government.

    1. Medium Sized C

      It is a common idiom for placing editorial emphasis on important sections in a larger passage of text.
      Quite prevalent on the internet.

      Welcome to the future.

        1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly

          In your opinion, it’s unnecessary. I like it coz I’m lazy so I disagree with you.

          I wish I knew how to put the word disagree in bold.

  4. Joe835

    I’d sooner see new councils established based on population needs, not county boundaries. Why not have metropolitan area councils rather than just “city” and “county”? Rename Cork City Council as a Metropolitan Area council and have it take in places that are more linked with the city than the county; places like Ballincollig, Carrigaline, Midleton, Carrigtwohill, the effing airport lads!

    Likewise, a rejigged Galway Metropolitan Council could take in Oranmore, Barna etc, Limerick could take in the bits of Clare on its suburban edges near UL and be done with it, maybe even Shannon? And Dublin councils could take in adjoining places like Bray, North Kildare, South Meath, all the places that are parts of the Dublin area but through some ancient hangover, aren’t within the region they’re so clearly part of in every other way.

    We’re too obsessed with county boundaries in Ireland, possibly thanks to the GAA. But County Dublin stopped existing as anything other than a GAA county in 1994 and the world didn’t end! None of the northern counties exist in any local government level anymore, yet you try and tell someone from Omagh that they’re not in Tyrone.

    It’s the insistence that the counties mustn’t ever change as the borders of these councils that make them so inefficient.

    1. David

      I love the tribalistic aspect of counties but I’m agreeing with you at the same time. A compromise has to exist.

      1. Joe835

        Wasn’t Dublin County Council abolished in 1994? Maybe it was 1995; whenever Fingal, South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Count Councils were created, County Dublin essentially became a historic county. And yet it still exists for things like GAA; as would other counties if the councils no longer followed their boundaries.

    2. ahjayzis

      +26!

      There’s no reason other than “dats are county” for the likes of Celbridge and Leixlip not to be governed with Dublin. They have practically no relationship with Naas and the rest of Co. Kildare.
      In Celbridge in particular the massive majority work in Dublin, are educated in Dublin, are FROM Dublin, yet if there is a Mayoral election will not have a vote, despite spending most of their waking time in Dublin.

      1. Joe835

        This is my nub of my argument; as someone from Ashbourne, I’m expected to travel to Navan, a place I’ve been to maybe 5 times in my life that’s twice as far from me as Dublin, to view planning permission applications in the field next to my house. Were we in Fingal (or a theoretical Fingal-South Meath Council), we’d come under Swords or Blanch, both of which are pretty much next-door.

        Of course, the road from Ashbourne to Swords is crap though because neither council currently has any interest in improving a road on the edge of each of their jurisdictions – which is exactly the kind of problem that insisting on such archaic council boundaries creates.

  5. ollie

    Boyle and his ilk want to keep as many councillor positions as possible to use as a steeping stone from the wilderness to the Dail.

    I ask this question of you Mr Boyle, Mr democrat.
    How many councillors were co-opted to local authorities without election under the watch of the Green Party?

    As an example, 10% of sitting councillors nationally were not elected at the last local elections, that’s over 90 councillors with no mandate.
    How does this sit with your new found interest in democratic values? The greens had their crack at government, they fupped it up. The party who, if you have €150,000 to spend on a hybrid BMW will throw you €5,500 of taxpayers money.

  6. ollie

    Any chance you could adress the real questions I raised?
    I’ve typed this really slowly so you can understand it:
    How many councillors were co-opted to local authorities without election under the watch of the Green Party?
    The benefits of giving €5,500 of taxpayers money to someone who has €150,000 to spend on a hybrid BMW?

      1. ollie

        Evasion, avoidance…. No surprise there.

        Thankfully the citizens seen straight through the Green party in government, what a shame that your legacy for governing through the most propserous period in the history of this Country is the most expensive energy charges in Europe side by side with car tax discounts for the middle classes (we won’t go into the banking disaster and your loading of private bank debt onto the shoulders of citizens)

        1. David

          The expensive energy charges are Bertie’s fault as well as this preposterous so-called ‘free market’ in natural monopolies.

  7. cluster

    Just as Merceille’s pieces improve a little, Boyle’s pieces get worse.

    This is your worst effort, Dan & I’ve been more or less supportive (I reckon) on every previous. Give it another hour and a re-write.

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