This week Cork City Council moved into the twenty first century with our first ever live streamed council business meeting. It was an interesting experience, not without some gremlins, but still an useful exercise in public access.
Previous meetings had been time restricted, because of COVID, leading to a forty eight page agenda. Five hours later we had more than tested the patience of anyone who had chosen to link in.
For those who came on to identify elements of Ballymagash in the deliberations of the Council, there were some items that could be portrayed in that way.
The longest debate of the night was on whether statues of War of Independence figures – Collins, MacSwiney and MacCurtain – should be erected on Patrick Street. I found the amount of time discussing this to be frustrating, as I suspect did many of those watching.
Despite that some that useful thoughts came from the discussion. The role of statues as tools of commemoration was rightly questioned. More seriously, arguing for further acknowledgement of male heroes, from a period in history that has yet to reflect at all the role of women, was more marked.
Earlier in the meeting we had approved planning for three infill housing projects. These had all involved a period of public consultation. As these applications often are, they were not without controversy. The consultations, with each of these projects, brought about considerable changes. The public interaction of these consultations was the catalyst for those changes.
Some objections would have remained. They probably never could be met. It is to the credit of local area councillors that they rose above continuing objections to make their decision solely based on housing need.
In my local electoral area another planning decision was in facilitating a pedestrian/cyclist access to an amenity park, where such access has been severely restricted.
On the surface this might not seem the most important issue. When our political debates are more influenced by what happens at a national level, we often forget that it is the small physical changes that can matter more to people.
Local government can be mundane. It’s activities can often invite justifiable derision. Without it, however, many everyday essential public services would become harder to provide.
Our political system is evolving. It is tentatively moving towards better public access and engagement. We need to be going further and faster in making these changes. The further we go in making these changes the better we can make our systems of government.
The speed of these changes will depend on how soon we are willing to put those elements of administrative culture, which have prevented change in the past, aside.
Administrative change in Ireland is still overly influenced by a philosophy of being risk adverse. An overriding attachment to secrecy still remains. A greater need level of trust, especially of the general public, needs to be created. A willingness to try and sometimes and fail has to become accepted.
Over my thirty years in public life I have seen some changes, but they have been far too few. I’m encouraged that there is now a greater capacity for change that is coming as much from council officials as it is from elected councillors.
Most of the work will remain mundane, necessary, occasionally worthy. But we can do it better and we should want to.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator and serves as a Green Party councillor on Cork City Council. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle