Leaving a Kingdom - How fared local government?

Author: Dr. Seán Ó Riordáin, LGIU

As we enter 2022, Ireland (if not many others) will be marking the culmination of a ‘decade of centenaries‘. This acknowledges the break-up of the United Kingdom in 1922; the establishment of two separate jurisdictions on the island of Ireland; and, the end of London-led governance after several centuries across, what is now, the sovereign State of Ireland.

Up to this point, the centenaries have been marked by commemoration and reflective consideration, but there is also, justifiably, some small pride to be found by taking what was in 1922, the basket case of the UK, to become one of the most successful economies in the OECD a century later.

Photo by Anna Church on Unsplash


As one of the world’s most open economies, it’s fair to say that, over the past century, Ireland has played a quite significant role on an international level. This includes being the longest-serving contributor to UN Peacekeeping; a key influencer at EU and WTO level (not to mention the United States); and, having socio-economic conditions which – while not reaching the dizzying heights of our Nordic neighbours – persistently places Ireland in the <a href=”https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/the-irish-state-has-had-unimaginable-success-in-its-first-century-1.4767461″>top 10 countries in which to live, work and play</a>. Something, which perhaps, even at their most visionary, could not have been contemplated by the young poets and social justice revolutionaries of 1916.

However, what is equally evident is the need to recognise the traumas of postcolonialism; sustained emigration, up to even recent times; religious abuse of women and children (including the exclusion of women from public affairs); racism; and, many other evils that still mean that this republic in the making is still a good distance to go before we begin to reach the vision held at the 1916 Proclamation of Independence.

Killing home rule with kindness

In 1898, former Secretary for Ireland, Arthur Balfour, is attributed to having modernised (and largely created) the local government system on the island of Ireland while he was the First Lord of the Treasury – shortly before he became the Prime Minister of the UK. As an avowed supporter of unionism, a central platform of his policy was to undermine the Irish demand for a level of home rule. No doubt, a lesson he would come to learn through this is that giving people who are demanding democracy, a little bit of democracy at a local level, will invariably lead them to demand even more democracy – particularly at a regional and national level.

His policy of killing home rule added impetus to Irish demand for self-rule, and perhaps ironically, if he were to return to Ireland today, he might notice that the reforms he introduced and the system he created, in structural terms, largely remains. The Republic still has county councils (with some notable exceptions), while in Northern Ireland, the system was entirely replaced as a result of the 1970’s Macrory Reforms and the more recent reforms arising from the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland having started out with similar council structures to those in Ireland now has 11 district councils.

He might also note the creation of municipal districts in Ireland that are not too dissimilar to the rural district councils created at the end of the 19th century – only to be abolished under the Local Government Act of 1925 by the post-civil war administration in the Irish Free State. However, while the boards of town commissioners, urban district councils, and, in the case of cities, county boroughs no longer exist, he might find some reassurance in the few Lord Mayors still knocking about, with even fewer powers than when established.

At the start of the 20th century, the creation of the General Council of County Councils at the national level (one of the forerunners of the Association of Irish Local Government) was to provide a basis for local politicians to think in national terms. It is no coincidence that many local leaders involved at the General Council became key players during the Irish Wars of 1916-1922 – with one of them, WT Cosgrave, becoming the first President of the Executive Council of the Free State Government.

1916 Proclamation of Independence

At the heart of the War of Independence, and the following Civil War was the little-studied role of local government. As the country began to ease out of the morass of civil war, the platform for independence was first established (and subsequently sustained) due to what occurred at a local government level – rather than a military or national parliament level. This platform is now a core achievement of modern Ireland and plays a leading role in the UN Security Council; the Council of Europe and the European Council; WTO; and OECD – among many other multilateral bodies.

However, when local government in Ireland is compared to other systems within the OECD (and elsewhere), it holds a limited to a very narrow range of direct responsibilities and self-financing. It might be reasonable to argue that this is a result of the role played by the system to undermine the British Regime in the years leading up to independence – and more significantly, as a consequence of the Civil War.

To mark the centenary since the conclusion of hostilities between Great Britain and Ireland with the signing of the Treaty; the subsequent surrender and withdrawal of the UK military; and the commencement of the civil war within the free State, we ask, what role was played by local government in all of this? And how does it inform the current, and critical, system in modern Ireland?

A group of women on the sidewalk tearing up a British flag. Photograph by the National Photo Company. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

Local government and the Irish wars

Balfour’s policy ignited a desire for home rule throughout Ireland which, ultimately, resulted in the adoption of a Home Rule Act in 1914, just before WWI began – which was then used as a pretext for suspension. Two years later, the world of politics in Ireland changed dramatically following the outbreaking of hostilities between Irish and UK military forces. Most notably, the 1916 Rising, when the demand for full independence, rather than home rule, became central in Ireland and resulted in the establishment of Dáil Éireann in January 1919, from which Irish political self-determination developed.

On the same day as the new parliament sat at the Mansion House in Dublin, declaring the establishment of an Irish Republic (no coincidence given the importance of local government in underpinning its establishment) the War of Independence breaks out.

As many of the recently published histories of Irish local authorities highlight, in the subsequent months, the war was not just about military engagement between the forces of the new parliament and the crown. The transfer of civil and political allegiance to the new parliament, from what had appeared to be rock solid allegiance to the British Administration in Dublin Castle – even in the immediate aftermath of 1916 Rising – was critical.

The exclusion of British local government oversight by local authorities during the course of the war came to a final, and ultimately, destructive end with the sacking of the Custom House in Dublin – a sacking that was primarily undertaken by the firefighters of Dublin. This move essentially destroyed the British civil administration of Ireland because without their files they had very little left to manage civil affairs and military matters to keep Ireland within the Kingdom. (This history is excellently explained in Liz Gillis’s recent book, Burning of the Custom House 1921). 

So while it is the surrender of Dublin Castle on the 16th January 1922 that is more commonly acknowledged as the beginning of the handover of power to the Irish Government (alongside the withdrawal of the UK Military Administration over the following months) many might reasonably argue that it is the destruction of civil administration that played, at least, an equal part in achieving Irish Independence in 1922. Not being able to control local government and local courts was the death knell of the empire in Ireland, something that gave heart to independence movements across the then British Empire, most notably India.

Lessons learned

If the lesson of keeping the local government system pacified was missed by the withdrawing administration, it certainly was not missed by the new Government of the Irish Free State. When it found itself in a civil war, many local authorities refused to accept the Treaty signed with Great Britain – given the provisions on the membership of the State in the British Commonwealth of Nations (ascribed as such in the Treaty rather than the usual term at the time, the British Empire) alongside an oath to the Crown.

Ironically, the partition of the island at that time was seen as a relatively marginal issue among those debating the Treaty in the Dáil. This refusal by many local authorities (especially those who were at the heart of the War of Independence) was directly confronted with military suppression by the new government – which ultimately worked to effectively castrate the system with the introduction of the Local Government Act 1925. This provided the platform that has restricted the role of local government in a manner that stands out against other local government systems in the OECD. Ironically, it took an Irish Government to restrict local democracy on achieving independence! Something people in Scotland might wish to reflect on.

In addition, recent reforms embedding the hierarchy of the national planning framework into planning policy have created greater alignment between the system in Ireland with those more commonly found in the rest of the EU. This alignment is, however, at the expense of the almost total independence (other than through judicial review) of the local planning authority in driving its own development objectives since 1963.

Largely, it must be acknowledged that reform of local government in Ireland since independence has been more about taking away responsibilities, such as health, and giving them generally to national and siloed state bodies, despite international evidence that person-centred services are best delivered through multi-tasking public service platforms – which are locally and democratically accountable.

A unique feature

In an excellent, recently published historical overview of local government management in Ireland, the County and City Retired Managers Society, with the support of the Institute of Public Administration, highlight the evolving role of the manager and, more recently, chief executive at local government level. It is this role where we find the most unique of features of Irish local government in world terms. It is a role which is placed between the demands of national policy and the meeting of local expectation. Not so much a prefect of the Napoleonic System but a diplomatic (and very driven generally) hub through which public services increasingly are enabled and locally delivered, often outside the immediate mandate of local government.

Eunan O’Halpin’s brilliant contribution in the book, on ninety years of county and city management encapsulates the tensions in creating the post, a post based upon the principles of the scientific school of management and commonly found in the United States at the time of independence. But it is a post which has developed to become one which is essential to delivery of both local and national policy not to mention services.

Local-centre relations

Ireland is often described as centralised, but in fact, when one examines the characteristics of the local-centre policy relationship, we find a far more nuanced relationship than its origins in the Irish Wars and the immediate aftermath of achieving independence. Ireland is not so much centralised as disaggregated, a state of local-centre relationships which are interdependent, heavily siloed and dispersed across multiple local/regional bodies, in turn, creating quite a unique local government system. It is a system wholly different to the heavily centralised regimes in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and clearly, it is completely different to the more developed systems (albeit not as autonomous as many people seem to believe) on mainland Europe.

It is a system which operates within the framework of the Constitution of Ireland – not so much in terms of the limited provision in the constitution which (just about) acknowledges the existence of the system – but more importantly, the role of independent oversight by the judicial system in its determination of constitutional matters. A feature that is wholly different to that in the UK parliamentary led framework, for example.

Consequently, local authorities in Ireland have a long experience of judicial review of their dealings with citizens. The concept of crown prerogative, and its application to both national and local governance, was abolished on independence. The citizen reigns supreme, a factor which has to be factored into every decision by government at all levels in Ireland – and something which Irish citizens are only too familiar with, and happy to enforce, through the good offices of both the High Court and Supreme Courts.

There are some similarities with the Napoleonic systems of administration found across the European Union, especially in light of Ireland’s membership in the EU. In the area of local planning – where arguably local government had traditionally a largely independent mandate – the level of judicial review remains prominent.

The future?

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

As the State begins a second century, it is a chance to remember that it is one of the oldest democracies in the OECD. Not quite the mother of all parliaments, but it could be suggested that the Dáil is actually older than its counterpart in London. After all, the Commons, as we know it, only became the parliament of a newly established UK in December 1922.

The democratic systems of countries that might be loosely described as the ”West” are in very stormy waters currently. Local governments across the globe are similarly challenged. Impacts unheard of at the start of the 20th century now confront policy makers across local government systems – although local authorities in their health role around the time of Irish independence were also dealing with the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Climate change, digitalisation, ageing, beyond horizon planning, are but a few of the challenges which elected members and officials across the globe now have to confront. A key feature of all these challenges is that they are mainly person-centred. The international evidence (as noted earlier) suggests that such services should remain at the heart of local government, with it being most effectively addressed and resourced by local communities.

In part, such thinking has finally entered into the policy mindset in Ireland – ironically, as a consequence of a ‘sudden’ realisation that, after a centenary of independence, local authorities are generally pretty good at doing what they are asked to do given their on-the-ground knowledge of local needs. This is just a suggestion that this might (and should) underpin the development of the local government role in Ireland in the next decade… and century.

Ireland is now one of the best countries to live in, a remarkable position to have achieved, given where it started on independence. Some might suggest it is right up there with our Nordic neighbours, if we were to reconsider the nature of the relation between the person and community with the State (local and national) not to mention the resolution of long-standing challenges of housing, health etc – some of which go back to roots in pre-independence. Much of the angst arising from post-Civil War Ireland has dissipated, albeit that issues in Northern Ireland remain very much in an insecure environment.

Surely it is now time to begin to position local government in Ireland to better advance local sustainability, community development and beyond horizon planning through the delivery of person-centred services (such as primary health and social care, education, etc.) by migrating responsibility back directly within the remit of the local government system While also giving a bit of credit that, notwithstanding the limited mandate it holds, local government has been central to the development of the State we now have.

As we mark a centenary, it is time to lose the fear that surrounds creating a relatively-independent local government system; one that pays homage to the system that was so critical to the foundation of the State all those years ago, and one that will be more critically able to address the many challenges of the present, and what comes 100 years from now.

The timeline of events