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