Boundaries and Power Structures: the purpose & role of Irish local government

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Andy Johnston, Director of LGiU Ireland, explores existential issues currently faced by two Irish local authorities, and the wider implications of these on the future of local government in Ireland.

Lines on maps and power matter. It could mean China’s infamous nine-dash line to grab vast swathes of marine territory, or who gets to run the United States. In the Irish context, it is manifested by two quite separate discussions that really should be joined up. The ongoing debate about the merger of Cork City and Cork County, and the recent poll on a directly elected mayor for Dublin.

In Cork, the discussion has pitted City against County, the national versus the local, majority report versus minority report, and expert versus expert. The driving force appears to be financial with efficiency gains expected. The counter arguments dispute the savings and work from the basis of economic development in the area.

The poll in Dublin resurrects an old debate about whether Dublin needs a mayor like other major European capitals. The argument being that this will enable Dublin to perform on the world stage and maximise its economic and cultural clout. The poll is interesting, but there was probably little understanding by the respondents of how a mayor would interact with existing local authorities, what responsibilities they would have, and how much a mayor might cost.

These are both important discussions but they are being conducted in a bit of a vacuum; there is little accompanying debate about the purpose and role of local government in Ireland. This makes it harder to explain to the Irish people why a merger might or might not be a good idea, or why a mayor would help Dublin compete internationally when many of the concerns of the citizens of Dublin will be very local and in areas which local government has no responsibilities.

So what is the future role of Irish local government? Is it an efficient service delivery unit or a facilitator of initiatives delivered by others? A strong local voice challenging national government or a loyal partner in government’s plans? To some extent it’s all of these and more, but a clearer understanding of its future purpose would help local authorities make wiser decisions about their present. It might also help the national political membership realise just how important a vibrant local government is to sustaining democracy.

At LGIU Ireland, being fans of and interested in local government, we will follow the debates in Dublin and Cork with great interest but we will also be looking at the bigger existential questions for local government as a whole. Irish local government is not alone in addressing these issues.