Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance

125 years of local administration in Ireland


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In this think piece, LGIU’s Ireland Commissioner, Dr Seán O Riordáin, reflects on Ireland’s constrained local government system and limited democratic oversight compared to other European nations. Highlighting challenges and opportunities facing the country, he emphasises that a strong local government system is vital for national prosperity.

As local elections loom in Ireland, the country is marking 125 years of elected local government, a proud moment but perhaps also a moment to reflect on the realities of a much constrained and denuded system. This is not to take from the effectiveness of local government in Ireland; we need more of it and, as the recent review of the system by the Congress for Local and Regional Authorities in Europe indicates, the system in Ireland is more about siloed local administration than a vibrant local government system. With only 949 councillors and limited powers over finance, Ireland’s local government system is generally seen as among the least developed in the Council of Europe.

This, of course, is a reflection of the highly disaggregated public management system in the country where democratic oversight is hugely constrained by comparison with the rest of Europe. On top of such dispersal of public service organisation, Ireland has seen the migration of local services into a highly siloed public infrastructure, which is quite unique. Walk through any major town in Ireland, and you will see clear examples: multiple offices for a multiplicity of agencies, often not locally accountable but which are totally dependent upon the local and national exchequer. This does not happen in most other parts of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In countries like the Nordics, France, Germany, etc., the citizen or resident interfaces primarily with the Hotel de Ville, the Rat Haus and the Town Hall, and where person-centred services are not provided by the local municipality, they will be through a regional directly elected and accountable body. Ireland is a long way from such arrangements.

There is great hope in the move towards a directly elected executive mayor in Limerick, and people are right to be optimistic, but, in reality, the powers available to the incoming Mayor are largely those already within local government, albeit with the role of Chief Executive. I look forward to Irish Water being ‘invited’ to meet the new Mayor to discuss their development plans for water and wastewater across Limerick. The outcome may make or break the developing role of the new Mayor. What will the Minister for Health and Chief Executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE) think when the Mayor, who will hold the second highest political and democratic mandate in Ireland with only the President holding a higher mandate, seeks to intervene in the complexities of delivering healthcare in Limerick?

Local government is the poor kid on the block within the Irish Public Services. It is almost without parallel to have more civil servants than local government staff anywhere in the OECD but this is the case in Ireland. Spending by local government, capital and revenue, is about 12% of total exchequer spending and less than 33% of the average in the OECD. Over 550 separate yearly schemes are in place that allow Ministers to make almost daily announcements of local spending. This is also without parallel in the OECD.

And yet, despite these wicked issues and the viscous nature of social media, it looks like over 2,200 brave souls are willing to put themselves forward for election. We have seen a small increase in those from a Minority Ethnic Community putting themselves forward, while the work of She Her Elected and others seems to be bearing some fruit, with around 33% of nominees being women, an improvement over the 21% in 2015.

Much great work has being done by the AILG and the CCMA/LGMA in demonstrating the effectiveness of our local elected members and the general service provision of local government. Frankly if local government had not stepped up to the plate over several international and national challenges in the past five years the Country would have been in really deep trouble.

Ireland has all too many systems of local administration but only one local government system which is democratically accountable. Maybe somebody will wake up and learn what our European friends have long realised: that a vibrant self-sustaining local government system is vital and without it the country is poorer for it.


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