Dan Boyle: All Politics Are Local?


From top: Ballot papers from the European and Local Elections, May 24, 2014 at the count centre in the RDS, Dublin 4; Dan Boyle.

Since 1999 Local and European elections in Ireland have been held on the same day.

Returning officers at count centres have liberally interpreted our electoral laws, as many voters continue to mark one ballot paper 1,2,3 and 4 in expressing their preference; then marking the other paper 5,6,7 and 8, as if there is meant to be some symbiotic relationship between the two elections.

To some extent there is, if only through holding the two sets of elections on the same day. Both are mid term elections that each have the capacity of making life uncomfortable for the sitting party of government.

The local elections, however, operate to a different set of conditions. These elections are the most candidate centric of elections held in Ireland.

While fewer voters participate in local elections, as opposed to elections to the Dáil, those who do participate make greater demands of the candidates. The reality is that at what we have in Ireland is not local government, but a glorified form of local administration.

Despite this we place expectations on candidates, who seek to become local councillors, that can never be met through the structure local government in Ireland.

Ireland is one of the, if not the, most centralised countries in Europe in relation to local government. Many myths persist about the level of powers that exist, and on whether we involve too many elected people in our local councils.

Too many decisions are made at a national level that can, and should more properly be made, at a local level. Any of the changes that have occurred in Irish local government, over the past twenty years, have been negative. Powers have either been taken away from local councils, and more particularly from elected councillors.

The removal of town councils in 2014 by the Fine Gael/Labour government, pushed through by then Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, was probably the most undemocratic decision in the history of our State.

There has never been any sincere attempt to bring about democratic reform of local government. We have seen several attempts of deck chair rearranging.

These changes have been instigated largely at the behest of senior civil servants at the Department of the Environment/Local Government, who zealously guarded the administrative aspect of local government while keeping any hint of improving local democracy underfoot.

The wrong arm of local government was dismissed in 2014. We should have kept town councils, expanded their geographical boundaries and decision-making powers, so that they would become District Councils, based on natural hinterlands.

What we need to be rid of is the County system of government. The 1899 Act, passed in the Westminster parliament, remains the main basis for local government in Ireland. The other jurisdictions where this legislation also applied – England, Scotland, Wales, even Northern Ireland have long since jettisoned county government. We should too.

Because the GAA organises itself on an inter county basis, has meant there has been a reluctance to address this necessary change. English cricket still clings to the myth of now disappeared counties. There is no reason why the GAA can’t do the same.

What we should have is a layer of regional government where, under suitable economies of scale, and where appropriate powers have been devolved from national government (in areas such as health and education) better accountability and improved public participation can be achieved.

It would be nice if this were to form what gets debated during the local election campaign. I wouldn’t be holding my breath though.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle


22 thoughts on “Dan Boyle: All Politics Are Local?

  1. ollie

    many voters continue to mark one ballot paper 1,2,3 and 4……….. really?
    How many is many? 5%? Less?

    Also, mid term elections in a Country where the Government doesn’t have a fixed term?

      1. Cian

        It is a maximum of 5[1] years by Law. But it isn’t a fixed term, as it rarely gets to the 5 years.

        [1] Max of 7 years in the constitution.

    1. Barry

      No, I think if you look you’ll find it is not illegal.
      Pretty much everything to do with a ballot paper or polling station is only whilst an election is in progess, and then only to prohibit interference in the outcome or to identify the voting preference of an individual, eg by noting the number of the ballot issued. (eg. SI 128/1965, section 91 or 297/1995 Section 98)

  2. ollie

    Although I fully agree with your proposal for more local powers but it must be folowed up with a 50% cut in the number of TDs

    To look at your favourite example: England: 1 MP for 83,000 people
    Ireland: 1 TD for 29,000 peoplw
    USA: 1 Lower Hse member for 747,000 people
    France 1 National Asembly member for 117,000 people.

    So you see Dan,. where power is devolved to a more local level the number of National Legislators should also drop, you overlooked that in your piece, I wonder why

    1. Liam

      US also has state assemblies, UK also has parliaments in Scotland, Wales and NI.

      Having said that I reckon we could get by with 120 TDs and 0 Senators.

  3. Joe Small

    I thought town councils were quite corrupt by Irish standards. There was a lots of patronage and sham “open competitions” held for posts. Like the Seanad, a good idea in theory but did not work out in practice.

    1. bisted

      …the Seanad is a very good idea for some…a sinecure for failed politicians and a pension for life…

    2. Clampers Outside!

      True. Good idea but practice be different.

      Not really getting your first sentence tho Joe… kinda circular reference like.

  4. RT

    Why don’t we have a single national constituency, as in many other EU countries, for EU elections? We only have 13 seats after all. Again the localism of Irish politics comes into play, with the 3 constituencies of Dublin (just Dublin county) – Ireland North-West and Ireland South, again drawn across county lines.

    What is the logic of having Bray (a Dublin suburb) and Bantry (very rural) in the same constituency? What good will Cork-based politician Liadh Ni Riadh, who has placed ads on Dublin Bus shelters in Bray, do for suburban North Wicklow (not to single SF out here)? The two areas have very different needs, even at EU level, and this is just one example!

    1. Cian

      I’m not sure where you are going:

      You start by suggesting a “single national constituency”;
      Then say that the existing (smaller) areas are too diverse for an MEP.

      Would a single national constituency not be even worse?

  5. Clampers Outside!

    *Stands up on the top deck of the 123 bus, and says…*

    “I don’t understand the cricket myth reference”

    1. The Old Boy

      The first-class English cricket competition is the County Championship, with the teams drawn from historic counties, many/all of which no longer exist except on old maps.

      “You’ll never play for Yorkshire, sonny.”

  6. Rob_G

    Why would we be interested in giving more powers to local councils when they don’t seem especially interested in exercising the powers that they currently have?

    DCC voted (twice!) to reduce LPT by the highest possible amount, thereby defunding itself and leaving it completely at the mercy of the central government for funding.

    I also think it would be better if planning decisions were left to central government than locally-elected reps – things like approval for new housing developments, etc, are too often subject to NIMBYism.

    1. Barry

      DCC voted by about 2:1 to reduce LPT, so maybe only 2/3 of them are ********* or ******* (fill in your own opinions!)

      A big part of the problem is that the system is opaque enough that the incumbents can show their constituents everything they’ve done for that individual (housing/grant/potholes/etc) but transparent enough that those who might be capable are put off by the lack of authority to achieve anything much!

      Devolvement of rights and responsibilities to levels closer to those who are effected (community / town / district councils) and locally elected executive positions (mayors and something akin to ministers) might be steps in the right direction since centralisation of powers and creation of permanent executives hasn’t done much to help

  7. Sham Bob

    The reasons for redrawing county boundaries aren’t really laid out well here. There would have to be clear benefits. Opposition would be fierce, as we can see from Waterford’s attempt to annex a part of Co Kilkenny that’s a de facto suburb of Waterford city.

  8. Shonkky

    “The other jurisdictions where this legislation also applied – England, Scotland, Wales, even Northern Ireland have long since jettisoned county government.”

    – what do you mean by this Dan? that there are no county councils in England?

    1. SoLo

      I think he is saying we have county borders as drawn up way back when while the UK has redrawn council/legislative borders making the idea of traditional counties obsolete.

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