Ireland’s national representative body for 949 elected councillors, the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), occupies a central position in the local government sector with a strong voice for local communities.
Eager to hear more about the recent work of the AILG ahead of next year’s 125th commemoration of Irish local government, Thomas from LGIU Ireland spoke with AILG’s President, Cllr Pat Fitzpatrick, about the organisation’s reflections, aspirations and views on the Irish local government sector.
To start us off, can you tell us a bit about you, your background, and how you ended up here today?
I am a Kilkenny man through and through, so I enjoy hurling as well as cycling and golf. My route into local government is not the most typical. I do not come from a family dynasty, but it was almost inevitable that I was elected to Kilkenny County Council in 2004 as I have always been passionate about politics and my local community. I love the job as a public representative and being able to meet people through my local area and the AILG as the voice of local authorities across the country.
After 12 months in the role of President of the AILG, what reflections and lessons have you made on the position of the AILG within the local government system?
What we are really saying at the AILG is that crucial question: do we have a real system of local democracy or simply a system of local administration? As the recent Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (CLRAE) report outlines, the powers, functions and resources of the public sector are skewed in the wrong direction in local government’s relationship with central government, so the primary objective of the AILG is to address the lack of balance between local and national and the resulting deficit of power and resources in local democracy.
It is important to understand that AILG is the voice of councillors and the voice of local government in Ireland. There is sometimes a void on who speaks for local government in Ireland, and in that void central government dominates the space. For us at the AILG, we have to be forthright and assertive as a voice for local authority elected members and as the voice of the sector.
For instance, when policy is being made which is relevant to local government, AILG is embedded into that process, so over the last 12 months, we have made sure that we raise the profile of the AILG in every Government Department to ensure that the AILG is understood as the representative body for local government and has a voice that needs to be heard.
A second reflection is on our ambitious public awareness programme to enhance the skills and capacity of councillors and to promote the work of local authority members. In particular, by making connections and partnering with agencies such as the Office of the Planning Regulator, we have been able to deliver a comprehensive set of education and training courses for councillors. As our annual conference in Kilkenny acknowledged, next year’s local elections are a watershed moment for empowering local government, and we need to work with all political parties and others to make sure the voice of local government is listened to, especially as manifestos and ultimately Programmes for Government are being prepared.
In particular, we need to see a commitment to a substantive review of local government and its role in the wider public service. You cannot have local government reform without national public service reform, something which has not been fully appreciated over the past decade or so of reform.
A final reflection is the enormity of the workload. Before I became President of AILG, I was looking at the role, and I had an apprenticeship with the President. But when I sat in the Chair for that first management team and listened to the executive and the wide range of views of councillors, I quickly realised it was simply a massive job.
Many are looking to Limerick and the recent developments in the Directly Elected Mayor bill as an indicator of central government’s attitude to empowering local democracy. What is the AILG’s caution on developments so far?
Since the legislation has just been published, the AILG is still reviewing and working through it, but there are three points to highlight.
First, the transfer of power from the executive to the office of directly elected mayors is a real positive change which should be the blueprint, not the exception. Democratic accountability is crucial to local democracy, and we are cautiously optimistic about how this will be reflected when the legislation is enacted. The Irish Government PfG outlines that local authorities will have a chance to vote on the office of Directly elected mayor, but we cannot wait. Some counties may not wait, and we as a sector should not wait for this. The transfer of powers has to happen now.
Second, the additionality question in legislation. What additional powers and functions will the directly elected mayor hold some sway over the process of new legislation? Central government and agencies appear slow to transfer powers that a Directly Elected Mayor ought to have in public transport, local community and policies to actually deliver a powerful office which can enact and deliver for their communities. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot have local government reform in isolation from the wider public service. They are two sides to a single coin. You cannot have one without the other.
Finally, the rate of progress needs to be questioned. People voted to decide on having, or not having, a directly elected mayor in 2019, so it is imperative that the central government moves more efficiently to implement a directly elected mayor for Limerick and others.
How did the position of Cathaoirleach at Kilkenny County Council prepare you for the national role as President of the AILG?
It is best to view that transfer as a progression step. From the Chairman of Castlecomer Municipal District to Cathaoirleach of Kilkenny County Council, to AILG President, there is a real step change in working the relationship between the executive and fellow councillors.
Obviously, as the AILG President, that relationship is on a different scale as now I have to look and read the room of 949 councillors who represent a wide spectrum of different communities. But the teamwork of the councillors, management and the AILG staff make it a really enjoyable job, and I am delighted to have served as President of the AILG from 2022-2023.
Along the way, Kilkenny County Council have been particularly helpful in accommodating this extra workload and providing an office space to work, so I have to acknowledge the help of Kilkenny County Council and my fellow AILG Vice President and councillors for that support.
As we commemorate 125 years of local democracy in Ireland next year, what is your vision for the role of Councillors in Ireland’s local government system?
We are finalising plans for the dates and processes next year as 2024 will be a huge milestone for Irish local government as Ireland will have enjoyed 125 years of local democracy.
At the same time, while commemorating 125 years of Irish local government, we also need to shine a spotlight on our current system of local government. We are one of the most centralised systems in the EU, full of silos and arms-length bodies. There is a huge deficit of powers and functions in our local government system, and so this begs the question, at this milestone of what path is Irish local government on?
Since 2014, the gradual erosion of functions and growing imbalance in the relationship between central and local government means the AILG vision next year will centre on the need for a genuine system of self-governance. We need an honest conversation about the future of local democracy, and it is timely that this coincides with 125 years of local democracy in Ireland.
Finally, as an elected representative yourself, what advice would you give to those standing for local elections next year?
For next year’s local elections, the AILG is eager to see greater diversification of Irish councillors and encouraging women and our minority ethnic communities into local government is one of the AILG’s top priorities.
One example of where we are being proactive is in relation to a joint collaboration between AILG and See Her Elected, which commenced in June 2021. We now have a regional caucus pilot established for the Western, Midlands and Northern regions of the Country across 13 local authorities.
Since then, AILG is the joint secretariat to the WoMeN’s Regional Caucus in partnership with See Her Elected in order to help retain and support women in politics, and we will continue to play our part in coordinating flagship events on International Women’s Day to raise awareness of role and work of women in local politics, advancing policy at the intersection of housing and domestic violence in collaboration with Safe Ireland and publishing progress reports on successes and learning from the first 18 months of the pilot project.
Finally, I encourage anyone interested to stand for local election. I cannot understate how fulfilling the role of a councillor is, and it is both humbling and an honour to represent North Kilkenny in Castlecomer and to be elected by your own community.
For those who are elected next year, make sure you reach out and engage with the AILG. When first elected, I did not know much about AILG, but since then, I have been able to take part in a huge range of training programmes, advice networks, and the overall benefits from learning from other councillors.
I couldn’t end without mentioning the work of the AILG team. We are a small team with two co-directors and one communications manager, but we punch far above our weight in representing Ireland’s 949 councillors and working to promote the role of the AILG and for the voice of Irish local government!
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