In 2024, Ireland marks 125 years of continuous local democracy, and it is one of the few members of the Council of Europe to reach this milestone of service to local citizens. This extent of service has occurred notwithstanding the Irish Wars, various world wars, economic and social transition from one of the poorest to one of the richest, and from isolation to internationalisation. At the heart of the democratic life of the people of Ireland, locally elected councillors have played a vital – if little understood – role, rather like the local government system itself, and yet both the system and the councillors have been critical to Ireland’s transformation, in particular over the past decade. The role, however, is hugely constrained relative to local government systems in other member states of the Council of Europe. We have fewer elected representatives than pretty much every other country in the Council of Europe. Recent reviews of the role of the councillor and the system itself by, among others, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE) have been scathing of how we continue with such a limited system and roles, something not tolerated in other countries across the OECD and Council of Europe.
One of the challenges in seeking to address the underdeveloped role of elected members in Ireland is the paucity of research on their role; indeed the paucity of research on the system itself is apparent with one senior academic, for example, recently coming out with the breathtaking argument that there are too many local authorities in Ireland. Is it any wonder, with such so-called ‘’informed’’ influencers, that there is such limited appreciation of the importance of local democracy?
Thankfully, that is beginning to change and a truly welcome initiative by the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) sees the publication of an evidence-based analysis of the role of the 21st century councillor in Ireland. Welcome not just in Ireland but also having a clear resonance for other local government sectors across the jurisdictions of the Council of Europe.
The research, commissioned by the AILG, was undertaken by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) at Maynooth University. Its aim was to document “the roles played by the elected member’s of Ireland’s thirty-one local authorities….to record councillor’s perspectives and experiences of their roles…”. It highlights the positive and challenging nature of the work of our elected representatives whilst also noting the concerns and fears they hold as they undertake their multifaceted responsibilities. From acting as advocates for their communities to intervening when the rights of local citizens are at risk, and from providing local leadership to adopting life-important policies for all who live, work, and recreate in this State, our elected representatives are central to sustaining local democracy, something not fully appreciated even by people who support the need for a vibrant local government sector.
The research is underpinned by extensive engagement, with well over 50% of the elected members in Ireland contributing to the primary research effort. Its findings align markedly with those of the recent CLRAE review of Irish local government and, consequently, its findings and recommendations provide an important and essential roadmap of where local government in Ireland can travel over the coming years in order to regain its rightful position at the heart of a vibrant, wealthy, and sustainable democracy.
The researchers from ICLRD, alongside the AILG team and their executive board, have done a remarkable piece of work, which should be compulsory reading for national policy-makers and those making decisions that impact the lives of local citizens and their communities. Can we be hopeful that this might happen? In fairness to Minister of State Kieran O’Donnell, in launching the research, he seems more than minded to advancing articulation of a considered response to the research, so maybe there is a new opportunity to reconfigure the roles of the 21st century councillor and of the local government system itself?
With well over 40 years behind me in working with and alongside the local government system in Ireland and at an international level, maybe there is the opportunity to once again return local democracy to the heart of public administration. I want to be optimistic about what might happen now it is clear as day what needs to be done thanks to this excellent research. Time should tell, but let’s not take too much time about it. The state of local government and its principle platform, the elected members, really cannot afford to wait in a long queue of various national priorities. Local democracy, as we can see in other countries, is precious but needs care and support, and maybe, just maybe, it might happen this time!
In the coming weeks, LGIU will cover the recommendations of the research in more detail and will monitor the implementation of the recommendations over the months in the lead-up to the local government elections next June, but for now, do read this important, evidence-based research. It really could be a game-changer for local democracy in Ireland.