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Local and Regional Government in Ireland

Dr Roy H W Johnston

(Regional Studies Association, 15/09/1990)
(All this material is copyright to the author; comments to

[A] The Existing System
1. Local government in Ireland is anomalous in the European context. The extent of the anomaly is due to its origin in the period of British rule, and to the failure of post-1921 Governments to bring in any democratic reconstruction.

The European local government situation is summarised in the following table, which gives the number of units of local government and their average populations (in thousands) at up to 3 levels of local and regional government:

State    lowest level  Pop  next level Pop  next level Pop
Belgium        589     17      9      1097     3      3290
Denmark        277     19     14       366
France       36433      2     96       579    22      2529
Netherlands    714     21     12      1222
Norway         454      9     19       221
Spain         8056      5     50       777    17      2284
Germany (FR)  8505      7    328       187    11      5564

In contrast to the above, there is a wide variation in the populations of the lowest level of Irish local democracy: Dublin at 519 and Leitrim at 27 being the extremes at county level; Dublin at 503 and Waterford at 40 being the extremes at County Borough level; note that all these lowest levels are substantially larger than any other lowest levels in other countries.

If we go down to Borough level we get the extremes of Drogheda at 24 and Kilkenny at 9; Urban Districts range from 27 (Dundalk) to 1.5 (Bundoran). We begin now to get basic units more in the range of the European pattern, but the vast bulk of the Irish population does not have access to local democracy in units of size such that people can take an interest and know what is going on.

2. The county system is a historical anachronism, dating back to Elizabeth I, and suited to regional government on horseback. For local government in the 19th century the British depended on the landlords and the Churches. To this day the basic de facto unit of local government is the Parish, which provides the hall where people meet. The issue of secularising the basic unit of local democracy, and bringing it into line with European democratic practice, has never been addressed.

3. County councillors lack power and responsibility; because of this Council meetings are inadequately reported. The State assumes County Councils will act irresponsibly, and checks everything centrally. The little bits of power which Councillors have encourage the 'irresponsible' image: voting on Section 4 amendments to planning decisions, voting on candidates for the specialist Senate panels, and voting for NUI appointments do not relate to local government. The 'junketing' image suggested by trips abroad to specialist conferences compounds this problem.

4. The central State, which has inherited the British Imperial apparatus, is all-powerful, and resists all attempts to gain more decision-making power at local level. The declaration of the whole of the Republic as being a single Region for EC purposes strengthens this tradition; all EC regional funding passes through the Dept of Finance, and is used for the benefit of the current Government via the process of local 'ministerial announcements' for political gain. The argument that this is somehow 'more effective' in drawing down EC funding remains to be tested, as no alternative system exists against which to measure it.

5. The nominal 'regions' invented for the purpose of drawing down EC funding are farcical, without real existence in the consciousness of the people who live in them. The most farcical are the strip along the Border, and the swathe which encircles Dublin.

6. Issues needing to be explored critically in the analysis of the current system (apart from Section 4, the Senate, the NUI and 'junketing' as mentioned above) include: the 'twinning' procedures with cities abroad, the role of TDs as councillors, the ineffective ritual role of the Mayor, international comparisons in some depth, how local government is financed (the effect of the demise of domestic rates has been on the whole disastrous).

International comparisons, with countries like Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Finland (NOT Britain or France, which have heavy central imperialist traditions and are bad models) should make extensive use of the University political departments, via the process of sponsoring student projects.

The critical analysis done by Professor Joe Lee in Cork should be taken seriously; Basil Chubb in TCD, along with Tom Barrington in the IPA, has done pioneering work in the 60s and 70s, ignored at the time, which is now recognised as relevant, as the message sinks in that the East European crisis is a crisis of centralist statism, and that there are many parallels between the roots of that crisis and what we have got here. P J Drudy in TCD is also a good source of relevant research in regional studies; the Regional Studies Association has acted as focus, and has a continuing catalytic role.

[B] Some Proposals towards an Alternative
1. We counterpose to this top-down nominal 'regionalism', and to the nominal 'decentralisation' which puts some junior Civil Servants belonging to a centralised Department in some centre outside Dublin, the following principles:

2. The basic community should be geographical and should be perceived as their local community by its members.

3. The scale of the basic District should such as to enable a basic core of professional staff to be maintained. The current rule of thumb is one engineer per 4500 population. A minimum figure of 5000 might be appropriate. We have analysed Counties Westmeath and Mayo and come up with the following District structures, based on having towns above a threshold size of 1700 as focus:

Westmeath: Athlone 22797, Mullingar 26550, Rochefordbridge 6451, Castlepollard 7581.

Mayo: Belmullet 9160, Crossmolina 8868, Ballina 15896, Swinford 12648, Westport 13958, Castlebar 22233, Ballyhaunis 7264, Claremorris 9383 and Ballinrobe 9066.

NB These projected Districts would need to pass the test of local acceptance by an appropriate democratic procedure. We only instance them as examples.

4. The functions of the basic District should be open-ended: ie they should be allowed to take on anything they like, unless the function had been reserved to a higher authority. Thus the 'ultra vires' principle should be turned on its head.

All dealings between the citizen and Government should be possible via the District Office, including tax collection, grant allocation, social welfare; the elected District Council would act as a safeguard against abuses.

School management, local public transport (including school transport), local enterprise development, land use policy (including planning applications), refuse collection (including recycling management), local roads, parks, swimming pools, cultural support etc could all be District functions.

Civil marriage should of course be a District function, in accordance with European practice; this would require legislation to separate the civil contract of marriage from the religious function, an important issue in its own right.

The role of District politics in the Gaeltacht would be of special importance, as it would enable the people of the Gaeltacht to develop their own political foci, on a manageable scale.

5. The existing Counties are the next level up from the proposed District system. So wide is the variation, however, that some sort of amalgamation into Regions is desirable, so as to give every District access to a strong Regional capital, with a variety of specialist services, including 3rd-level education. The redrawing of the county map, as was done recently in Denmark, would appear to be desirable.

We have seen one attempt to do this, in the basis that each new county or region should have a population of not less than 100,000, in which there emerge the following regions: Kerry, Cork, Thomond, Galway, Mayo, Donegal, East Connaught, South Ulster, North Leinster, West Leinster, Mid-Leinster, South Leinster, Suirside and Dublin. This would fulfil the 3rd-level College criterion if there were to be put Regional Colleges in Wexford, Cavan and Castlebar.

An alternative, taking the criterion of at least one existing Regional College in the main centre, would envisage Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Letterkenny, Dundalk, Athlone and Carlow as regional foci.

A third alternative would be to look at the existing Health, IDA and Telecom regions and come up with some compromise amalgam.

The process of compromise should involve the right for districts to opt in to one region or another, even if this involves subdivision of the archaic counties. People should be enabled to opt for the hinterland with which they naturally identify.

6. What would be the regional functions? All State functions except Defence and Foreign Affairs is one approach (cf Switzerland). Another is to devolve down State-agency functions like CTT, the IDA, Eolas; this is already happening in the 'one-stop shop' concept, as in the Granary in limerick. Another is to build on the Shannon Development concept, associating it with a democratic control system at regional level. The key idea is to have at the Regional Capital all services, in one integrated location, that are currently available only in Dublin, in separate offices. This basic idea needs to be explored systematically: how to split up the IDA resources into several 'Shannon Developments', while keeping a single contact-network abroad (avoiding the present situation where the IDA and Shannon Development are competing abroad).

Whatever procedure is adopted, all functions currently separately and inconsistently regionalised by central authorities (CTT, Eolas etc) should be consistently focused on the regions as finally defined.

7. How would the democratic control loop work? One approach would be simply to declare the TDs for the region to be the Regional Council, and let them meet as such on Monday and Friday, meeting as the Dail on Tuesday to Thursday. This would give them local visibility in regional legislation, and would make the clinic system less necessary.

Another approach might be to build the Regional Council out of the aldermen of the Districts, enabling them to go professional at regional level. One could also have both, constructing the Regional Councils out of a combination of TDs and aldermen.

8. The problem of loss of status of county towns which were not Regional capitals (eg Portlaois) might be resolved in 2 ways (a) give the District more real devolved power than has the County now (b) spread out some of the Regional functions over the old county towns reduced to District status. This might also work for the multi-centred regions; for example in the case of a suitably named SE Region it would be possible to have the capital at Kilkenny, and devolve some regional functions to Waterford, Carlow, New Ross, Clonmel etc. In all cases the Regional function would be added on to the District office, with its regional status clearly defined.

11. Regions should be given names with which people could identify, not just SE' or whatever; there may be historic names, pre-dating the Counties, or else use the name of the regional capital.

[C] Local Government in Dublin
1. Greater Dublin requires special treatment in this context, on grounds of its relative size, and anomalous electoral ratio for local government, relative to the rest of the country.

2. Local government in Dublin has a regional dimension in that the management is de facto integrated between the City, the County and Dun Laoire, but the democratic process is subdivided and impotent, with an electoral ratio of the same order as that for TDs. Because Councillors lack significant power, they get little press attention, and few people know them.

3. For the boundary of the Dublin Region the county boundary is obsolete; a more appropriate regions is the area defined by the ERDO, bringing in parts of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. It is roughly similar in extent to the 01 telephone region, which should be brought into conformity with whatever region finally emerges from the political restructuring.

Districts of 100,000 would be remote from the people and would be difficult to name except by points of the compass. Districts of the order of 50,000 would however be identifiable in terms of perceived foci, with names and traditions. Boundaries should be defined in terms of barriers like canals or railways.

A feasible set of districts would be as follows (subject of course to acceptance by the people concerned, in a suitable referendum procedure); we give approximate populations in thousands:

Outer Ring: North Fingal 30, South Fingal 53, Blanchardstown 57, Liffey Valley 45, Clondalkin 35, Tallaght 74, Bray 48, Rathfarnham 38, Dundrum 60, Stillorgan 64, Dun Laoire 58;

Inner Core: Pembroke 37, Rathmines 50, Crumlin 59, Ballyfermot 48, Cabra 31, Finglas 70, Drumcontra 34, Clontarf 34, Coolock 50, Raheny 72 (incl Howth), Inner City 84.

It would be appropriate to give the Dublin Districts the status of Boroughs, with an executive Mayor. They would be, after all, on the same scale as Waterford of Limerick.

The Dublin Region would need to take care of overall water supply and sewerage, main roads, planning at the zoning level, refuse, major museums and galleries, cemeteries, third-level education (eg DIT, DCU).

Districts should handle housing, local roads, planning (individual applications), parks, swimming pools, local enterprise development, support of local cultural initiatives, second-level education, motor registration. The tax office should be accessible at district level.

There should be recognition of organisations at local community level (5000 or so, analogous to the Districts outside Dublin), with as many functions as they could handle appropriately devolved. Such functions might include primary school management, parking enforcement, park monitoring, litter, recycling pick-up points, enforcement of environmental regulations etc.

[D] Finance
1. We have already alluded to the role of the Tax Office as being a District function. It is desirable that the citizen should have to deal with government at one point only, and that this should be local, accessible, and have a human face.

2. While all taxation should go via the District Office, the proportion of tax going to support District, Regional and National services is a political decision, as indeed is the absolute level of taxation.

3. We urge the principle that the District should be entitled to take the political decision to relate taxation to services at district level. We would supplement this principle with the additional one that strong Districts should contribute to the development of weak, and strong Regions to the development of weak. We urge this principle not on the basis of charity, but on the basis of investment in viability.

4. Thus a developed District or Region should be in a position to contribute to the development funding of its weaker neighbours, in its own interest, in that if it does so it minimises problems on its home ground due to inward migration of unemployed labour from elsewhere.

5. The basis of taxation might be property, income, expenditure, added value or some appropriate mix of these elements. This would be a national political decision.

6. The details of how to make a district-based taxation system be perceived to be equitable, and make the transfers as suggested acceptable, is a matter for the political process once the decentralised structures are established.

[E] The Northern question
1. The border regions are particularly depressed, mostly as a result of the economic effects of partition. The same is true of the border regions of Northern Ireland. A case could be made for setting up cross-border regional development agencies. The machinery for doing this exists under the Anglo- Irish Agreement, and this would constitute a creative use of that somewhat controversial legislation. The development agencies would need to be given devolved powers by both Governments, and the right to develop and implement their own integrated development plans, with resources devolved from the IDA/IDB. The politics of this might be an interesting alternative to what is going on now. (NB this was written in 1990 RJ)

2. In this context, a possible Sligo/Letterkenny bifocal region of the Republic would naturally split into two, giving a Sligo/Enniskillen region and a Letterkenny/Derry region. The opportunities for this type of development should be explored in the context of the Hume Report. A multi-focal region embracing Dundalk, Newry, Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan might be viable.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1998