A CHANCE TO BREATHE FRESH LIFE INTO IRISH DEMOCRACY

 

A CHANCE TO BREATHE FRESH LIFE INTO IRISH DEMOCRACY

Niall Collins TD, Fianna Fail spokesperson on Environment, Community & Local Government

 

The empowerment of the citizen and ensuring that the kind of powerlessness that Patrick MacGill wrote about is a relic of the past lies at the heart of real republicanism. It is that belief that underpins my own views on local government.  One of the central messages conveyed by the people to the entire political class was that they want a change in the way that politics works in Ireland. They want us to get Ireland on the road to recovery, but they also demand that we drive on comprehensive reform. This is a major challenge to us all, especially for a Government which has an unprecedented majority.  The task is to implement changes that directly address the failings in our institutions of state. The public were not asking for a philosophical debate, but a practical approach to radically improve how public life works in Ireland.

The promised radical reform has not materialised. It is time we became serious about reform.  The electoral system is not the only factor in the dominant localism of Irish politics. This is what the extremely limited Constitutional Convention seems to think. I believe the power vacuum in local government that TDs fill is a major factor in the political culture we have today. Addressing this vacuum is the key to overhauling Irish politics. Local Government in Ireland is the poor relation of the bankrupt family of state political institutions.

Current company excepted, it is not a topic that commands widespread interest, so I am glad to have this opportunity to offer a fresh vision for local government, and add to the debate about the forgotten part of the family. Discussion on the topic has been severely limited. Since 1991, I have counted at least 14 reports on local government structures, services, finance and efficiencies but the public debate has been effectively non-existent. How many political commentators and opinion formers, let alone members of the public have read the local election manifestoes of the political parties ever? Contrary to the government’s assertions, some progress has been made through Better Local Government, the removal of the Ultra Vires rule and constitutional recognition. Who would have thought it was Fianna Fáil who would end the dual mandate? However, much more radical action needs to be taken.

As Edmund Burke put it “to innovate is not to reform”. The sweeping changes announced by the government do not mark a real improvement in Irish local government that will be felt by people across the country. Instead of radical reform we will have the centralisation of power through abolition of town councils. Rather than moving power closer to the citizen this will see it become even more distant.  In place of efficiencies we will have large, inflexible organisations where size is mistaken for savings.

Ireland already has one of the lowest amount of local government representatives per capita in Europe and one of the weakest local government structures. The creeping sense of alienation that ordinary people feel towards government will only become worse under the knee jerk reactions being pushed by the government.  The decision making processes that affect our everyday lives, rather than taking place at the level closest to the citizen, will be shifted even further away from them. Local democracy and local accountability cannot be sacrificed in the name of efficiency.

I will outline what I see as a major vacuum in Irish political life and sketch a set of proposals to create a local government system that will empower the ordinary citizen. One that will create a new era of transparency and engagement and that will provide a real forum for leadership which separates the local and the national. I will focus on three key themes of democracy, leadership and integrity. Underpinning this vision is the belief that local people are in the best position to make local decisions.

Democracy

Community Councils
Looking at the theme of democracy, let me start from the tier closest to the citizen. Power should rest at the closest possible level to the citizen. This is a principle enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty and the Council of Europe’s Charter of Local Self Government to which Ireland is a signatory. In order to make it a reality we need to help consolidate and develop a vibrant, active community council model. Community councils should be given the first role in developing local area plans, deciding where local developments should go, what amenities are needed and their communities should look like.  It is basic politics deciding what goes where and when.

 Putting in place a clear community council structure to develop a strong sense of place rather than an ad hoc framework offers an avenue for engagement for locals to have an on-going say in how their local community is run. These councils should be of, by and for the community. These councils should help set the basic local criteria in terms of design for planning, and act as a forum for expressing local needs working in conjunction with residents associations to help create such organisations as Community Alert Groups, local festivals and Tidy Towns organisations. There is a well spring of local pride in Ireland, one that we all see in the hard work of GAA clubs and Tidy Towns, which we should use to re-vitalise communities hit hard by economic difficulties.

Town Councils
Much has been said about the future of town councils which were highlighted in the McCarthy Report and the Local Government Efficiency Review as areas that should be abolished. While there is much I agree with in the Efficiency Review, I am not convinced that the abolition of town councils is a sound strategic choice. It’s ironic that, as the 2011 census reveals, the biggest population growth has occurred in towns of over 10,000 people we are discussing abolishing their main forum for self-governance. Ireland now has 62% of its population in urban areas; we need to be more imaginative in addressing urban governance rather than a slash and burn policy with no thought as to its impact.  Even under the fiscal pressure, we must take a long term approach to the problems we are facing and how best to address to them.

Some of you will have followed the Irish Times series on the best places in Ireland to live where Westport came out on top. I am sure that there are plenty of people here today who have their own ideas on that, but we would all agree that Westport is a worthy winner.  One of the main drivers behind the success of Westport has been the hard work and dedication of a non-partisan town council where traditional party rivalries do not dominate in a way that is only possible at this local level. The council views itself as a development agency for the town, working to attract tourists, provide amenities, ensure proper development and create a positive business environment.  The council fought against developers who wanted out-of-town retail centres or to disrupt the unique architectural fabric of the town. Combined with the hard work of local civic groups like the Tidy Towns keeping the streets in pristine condition, it has shaped Westport into the well planned town which it is today. It is an example of what a town council can and should do.

 This is not a defence of the status quo, Town councils must change and be made to work for people. In order to ensure value for money, rebuild the trust of the public in a political system shaken by the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals and the weaknesses exposed over the past few years, we have to take strong action. It is vital that we cut costs and ensure that self-serving junkets such as conferences or twinning trips are cut out. I believe that the basic payment given to town councillors and ad-hoc expenses for conferences should be completely eliminated. Any foreign travel should be entirely self-financed and focused solely on economic links and cultural exchanges for students and young people who benefit most from such efforts. To survive, town councils must return to real civic engagement with local people making local decisions.

New Ways of Engagement
I believe that information technology offers a chance to radically close the gap between officials, representatives and the people they serve.  As the Mahon Tribunal pointed out it is critical that we shine a light on the internal workings of organisations that exist to serve the people.  A new era of transparency and engagement will shake Irish political culture up in bold new ways.  It is a chance to breathe fresh life into Irish democracy.  The 2006 Taskforce on Citizenship and more recently the work of We the Citizens shows a real appetite amongst the public for engaging with the political system and taking an active role in decision making.  Local people making local decision should be facilitated by:

  • Live streaming of all council meetings
  • Open on-line Q & A forums with councillors and officials
  • Ensuring that planning documentation is freely available on-line as recommended by the Mahon Tribunal
  • Facilities for lodging complaints and proposing solutions
  • Plebiscites on local issues
  • Participatory budgeting such as in Recife, Brazil
  • Petitions for action on specific areas

Progress is already being made in the area through the SOWIT project between researchers in UCC, TCD and Kilkenny County Council. More than just canvassing for locals’ opinions, it also forms the basis for producing viable solutions to the problems that local areas face. I hope that this model will be built upon across all local authority areas. Utilizing our technological capacity to make politics more transparent and open to engagement will change how we do politics more than any constitutional convention ever could.

Leadership
I believe that directly elected mayors represent a chance to introduce real leadership in local authorities, re-balance power away from over-dominant officials and help refresh our Republic. A central individual provides an opportunity to:

  • Drive forward an agenda
  • Fight for the advancement of local government needs, heighten the visibility of the local authority
  • Act as a champion for their local area
  • Broaden engagement with the public and promoting greater accountability.

Mayors provide clear lines of accountability and effective leadership so that it is clear to everyone “where the buck stops”.  The unique legitimacy and mandate of mayors, combined with the stability of a political term in which mayors cannot be removed from office at the whim of political colleagues, can enable bolder and braver choices to be made in a way that divvying up the Cathaoirleach position amongst parties cannot. This means that mayors can take up the challenging role of breaking down the silo effect of the civil service and tackle the issue of local government financing which needs to be developed in tandem with structural reform. An outward looking approach is crucial, and if localities are to compete with cities across Europe and globally, a strong champion and ambassador will be key. Whether this is attracting inward business investment or lobbying for national or European funding, mayors have a vital role to play. For instance, working within the Committee of the Regions structure in the EU to secure EU grants, or European Investment Bank funding, a Dublin Mayor could help secure additional money for specific Dublin projects such as revitalising DublinBay and utilising Dublin’s maritime tradition.

The successful London bid for the 2012 Olympics launched by Ken Livingstone is perhaps the most striking and high-profile example of the role a mayor can play in getting a big achievement for their area. There are also a number of international examples of the contribution mayors can make in generating local economic development. These are certain ideas suited to certain cities but they are the kind of ideas that Ireland needs and can promote by showing a bit more imagination in local government.

I mentioned earlier that the assumption that big is equal to efficient is not always the case. The work of Mark Callanan, Ronan Murphy and Aodh Quinlivan and their research paper “Is Bigger Better?” questions that sweeping assumption and begs broader questions about how we approach local government. I think that the innovation and flexibility shown by executive mayors stands in stark contrast to the top down silo approach of large bureaucracies. It illustrates the findings of that research brief and the potential for local leaders coming up with solutions rather than dictates from Dublin. It reflects the great philosopher John Stuart Mill who was a trenchant supporter of local government as a place where innovation and aspiring politicians could be tested out, failures cast aside and successes brought forward before going to the national stage where the stakes are much higher.

In my view they should supplant the City Manger to become executive mayors with a full time, fixed term, remunerated position. It is important that additional powers are devolved to the local authority in order to ensure that the position is justified and there is a real gain for people involved.  Starting with Dublin there is no reason why other urban centres Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford could not be led by directly elected mayors before moving to implement this model across all counties in the long term. This incremental process should allow for sharing of best practice between local authorities and the creation of real local leadership.

Integrity
Restoring public trust in the political process is not simply an issue for the Oireachtas. Local government must also be seen to adhere to the highest ethical standards that we expect for our country. Planning corruption at a local council level explored by the Mahon Tribunal has been one of the most corrosive legacies of Irish politics in recent decades. The conviction of former Fine Gael councillor Fred Forsey for corruption shows that problems in the planning system are a cancer that did not stop at the Red Cow. It was in this light that I have been deeply critical of the downgrading of inquiries into planning irregularities in particular given the government parties’ control of these local authorities over the past few local elections. Trust in our Republic needs more than a whitewash – it needs to be completely rebuilt. In my view a series of steps needs to be taken at local level:

  • Firstly the rigorous enforcement of rules relating to corporate donations and lobbying in local government by a specialised section of SIPO.
  • Secondly, the introduction and application of whistle-blower legislation to local authorities.
  • Thirdly, the full implementation of the comprehensive recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal.

The tribunal came forward with a series of recommendations to underpin the integrity of the local government planning system.  I fully support its recommendations. It is vital that councillors are fully trained and equipped to look at the complexity of planning decisions, and their own interests in those decisions open to full public scrutiny. An open, internet-accessible registration of donations and interests by local authority members will enhance transparency over the monetary interest of elected representatives. Stringent auditing systems need to be put in place and maintained in order to ensure that potential corruption in procurement or other use of public money is avoided.

I believe that the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be extended to cover local authorities. Fianna Fáil published a bill to this effect which was rejected by the government. Opening local government to greater financial transparency should be a key immediate objective of the government. Accountability and integrity in public life should stretch from the halls of Government Buildings to the lowest town council chamber. No exceptions.

Conclusion
Fianna Fáil is the Republican Party and our republican philosophy rests on the active role of the citizen, a belief in Lincoln’s phrase of government “by the people, of the people and for the people”. A true Republic allows its people to take an engaged on-going role in shaping their lives. In local government this means by, for and of the community. I believe that reforming local government along the key themes of democracy, leadership and integrity will help to achieve this. It will not just restore public faith in the political system but will reinvigorate it with new blood, fresh thinking and bold solutions to problems old and new. It’s time to change how we do things. Let’s start with local government.

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