Ireland, Northern Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance

An Ireland of the regions: But what of local government?


Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

In my recent LGIU think piece, which explored the idea of an Ireland in 2040 being built upon a regional framework, the question of what the future of local government might look like was not directly addressed. Would moving, necessarily, towards a regional governance model based upon the current powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, being retained in Stormont, for a newly configured Regional Assembly for Ulster have an impact? It would, of course, if that new governance framework would include the three Counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, as well as what is currently Northern Ireland. That would mean, in essence, that, without a substantive reform of local government in a newly configured Ulster political setting, there would be two systems of local government. Hardly tenable one might be bold enough to suggest.

The existing local government system of Northern Ireland with 11 district councils came about as a consequence of public service reform which clearly had its origins in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The three County Authorities in the Republic have seen some – but limited – reform since the Balfour Brothers in the late 1890s set about killing home rule with kindness with their creation of a robust local government system. Since then, however, reform has been frankly about taking powers from local government and doing limited structural change, such as the abolition of town councils and the creation of municipal districts.

It is hard to think that with a radical move towards a unifying political framework across the Island of Ireland, that a shift to a district structure in the three counties would not follow.

It might also mean a significant reform to the financing of local government in those three counties, running parallel to the financial arrangements in their neighbouring district councils. Anyone for a local property rate (which is currently significantly larger than property taxes in the Republic) alongside a regional rate, perhaps? Maybe with the possible introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland (which some are suggesting as a means to raising badly needed finances for the Executive), we might, under revised constitutional arrangements on the Island, see such charges also being applied in the three counties concerned? And what of structural change? With a renewed focus on building the Derry/Strabane/Letterkenny metropolitan area, would the current Donegal County Council see a considerable reduction in size to give the Derry/Strabane/Letterkenny metropolitan area the economic muscle to grow, as its counterpart metropolitan areas in Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford do so?

Perhaps in such an instance, there might be an argument for having a specific case for a Gaeltacht Districts Council, covering the Gaeltacht areas in Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Meath. Furthermore, what about Cavan and Monaghan? Are the unified district structures in Northern Ireland simply to be replicated in a new Ulster, by amalgamating them into a Cavan-Monaghan District? Or perhaps it might be worth looking to the municipal districts of those counties becoming the local government platform and, indeed, replicating that model across the districts of Northern Ireland, something that would be aligned with how local government across Mainland Europe is organised.

Where would that leave the rest of what remains of the current Republic? Would we simply continue on with current county/city structures? Hard to envisage that being the case, especially if we see moves towards metropolitan governance in what can be reasonably expected to be larger centres of urbanised populations. This taking place alongside a stronger regional structure replicating the current powers devolved to the Northern Irish Assembly and Government by Whitehall could be a feasible scenario. Would Merrion Square be willing to contemplate such changes in their new federal role? They would certainly have to if an agreement was to be in place in the case of governance for the new Ulster, so it is hard to see local government in the Republic of Ireland simply continuing as is.

Could it be possible to envisage the demise of the current county-based model across the Republic? After all, if the jurisdiction in a new Ulster were to be reconfigured into a single local government system, how could one possibly justify continuation with the current structures in the remainder of what might be a unified federal arrangement on the island of Ireland?

What would that mean for both the financing and political oversight of the sector? It could mean arguably that Ireland would finally be within the sphere of local governance envisaged in the Charter for Local Self Government. Concerns might be mouthed regarding the sense of identity with the county structures, especially in the context of sports, but if we look at the Northern Irish model, they seem to have coped with such changes.

What would that mean then when it comes to the provision of local services? Local authorities in the Republic have a broader – if still very restricted – role than their Northern Ireland counterparts. It is increasingly evident, however, that notwithstanding murmurings about devolving powers and responsibilities to local government in various Irish Government policy iterations over the past number of decades, it remains the case that Irish local government is part of the most disaggregated and siloed local governance environments in the OECD – as the recent review of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe declared. There is, nonetheless, increasing alignment between what a local authority in Ireland does with those of Northern Ireland (witness the role of community planning in Northern Ireland and the local economic and community planning model in the Republic), and in the event of a renewed regional governance, while there might be scope for such continuing, it is hard to see how the process wouldn’t simply further reduce the scope for local discretion.

Would people in what is the current Republic be comfortable with that extent of change to how they are governed?

So many questions requiring an answer. As I noted in my recent think piece we seriously need to be discussing such issues. Flags and anthems are not unimportant to discuss but constitutional reconfiguration is not just about colours and songs. The extent of institutional change required to move, in the possible event of a border poll that would accept the principle of a unifying process, is not entirely unique in international terms (see what occurred in the former Soviet Block following the collapse of the Iron Curtain) but it would be immensely challenging. This requires detailed consideration, not to mention a body of constitutional reform, alongside the creation of a new body of legislation without parallel on the Island, and that will take time.

Is this understood? Probably not, I am afraid to suggest.


One thought on “An Ireland of the regions: But what of local government?

  1. A very interesting piece of writing. it shows how complex and of many parts the idea of unifying the island is. But if the primary criterion can be ‘to create a better place for all the island’s people’ then changes to how local government works must first pass this test.

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