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Lack of new faces in local elections a concern

Comment & Opinion

 

UP FOR GRABS Thirty seats will be contested in Mayo County Council in May’s local elections, but the main parties appear to be struggling to encourage young candidates to run. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

WE are now a little over four months from the local and European elections, which are due to take place on May 24, and currently political parties and independent candidates are in the throes of finalising their plans ahead of what should be very interesting contests.
We are all very familiar with the adage ‘All politics is local’, and there remains a certain prestige to putting your name on a ballot paper, securing the support of your family, neighbours and friends and gaining election as a public representative.
Since the abolition of town councils, Mayo County Council is now the only authority in the county seeking public representatives, with 30 seats up for grabs in May’s election.
When town councils existed, the general perception, rightly or wrongly, was that there were too many councillors, with nine councillors representing Ballina, Castlebar and Westport, along with 30 more on the county council.
However, this arrangement meant that many younger political party members had a stepping stone to getting involved. There was a gradient of roles to experience, starting with town councillor and progressing to county councillor and on to Senator or TD. Young people with ambitions to become involved in politics could do so in their own time and find out if it was a world in which they wanted to get more heavily involved.
However, judging from the many conventions that have taken place already in Mayo, the main parties are struggling to recruit young candidates with real political ambition. Many members of the public see the position of county councillor as an almost full-time role, and believe it is next to impossible to both hold down a full-time job and fulfill the role of a Mayo county councillor to the best of one’s ability.
As a result, local politics has become an unattractive option for time-strapped young professionals, who have more than enough going on in their daily lives, between work and family commitments.  
This is a worrying trend, as public life needs a balance of youth and experience to ensure it is vibrant and energetic.
A question of balance
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that a lot of familiar faces have resurfaced at conventions, especially for the dominant Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties.
A number of former councillors, some who stood away from politics, and some who lost their seats, are back in the race for Áras an Chontae. These candidates deserve praise, as it is not easy to go back to an electorate that has already rejected you. However, on the upside, their familiarity with the system means they are ready to get stuck back into the hard work of canvassing and pressing the flesh.
Challenging the political establishment is never easy, but it is even more difficult here in a county like Mayo, where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have enjoyed decades of dominance. Parties with comparatively smaller memberships, like Sinn Féin and Labour, find it difficult to canvass the large geographical area of Mayo’s municipal districts. The same applies to Independent candidates, who must organise all of their own backroom teams, relying heavily on close family and friends, rather than card carrying members.
Those involved in the political game, particularly at local level, must try to engage with young, ambitious professionals and show them that there is a future in politics and that their work on the ground in local areas can really make a difference.
It should be seen as a real honour to represent the people of your locality, to help them deal with the problems they face on a daily basis. Unfortunately, however, the role of a county councillor is seen as more hassle than it is worth, and their powers are believed to be too limited and too curbed by the council executive and national policy in general. Changing that perception and letting our councillors have more of a direct say in the political system may be the first step towards changing this situation.
Time and time again – especially over the last five years – The Mayo News has carried headlines about councillors becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of real say in  important issues affecting our county. Stripping away powers from elected representatives is one sure way of turning people off the idea of running in local elections. A balance must be struck – and finding that balance is much more difficult than it might at first seem.