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Why local elections matter

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

I can’t fathom why local elections garner so little enthusiasm in Ireland. Sure, they lack the prime-time drama of general elections, but surely the fun part of the locals is that you can get up close and personal with the cast?
Turnout for locals tends to hover between 50 and 60 percent, compared to around 70 percent for general elections. So, almost half the population claims no say on local representation. It’s not ideal, but hardly surprising. If your political awareness and engagement is naturally low (or your disillusionment is high), there is little about local elections that will draw you in; they distinctly lack in glamour, particularly in these poster-free days.
Of course, the locals are somewhat different these days. Phil Hogan’s rationale for eradicating town councils was to save money at a time when the country had barely two shillings to rub together (some would argue it still hasn’t), but also to devolve more functions from central to local government. Funnily enough, I don’t know many councillors that claim to have more power now than they had seven years ago, but perhaps I’m just keeping the wrong company.
In rural Ireland, the merging of town and country into municipal districts has been a difficult marriage. Rural towns, though rural, are still towns; drivers of local economic activity, and when resources to towns are diluted, both they and their hinterlands suffer. In sprawling counties like Mayo, many don’t even know who their local councillors are.
It’s parochial, yes, but decision-making is best done by people closest to where those decisions will have an impact. It’s telling that the the centre-left Labour party and the centre-right Fianna Fáil both agree that abolishing town councils was the wrong decision.  
The move also had the effect of entrusting local authorities and council executives with more power, while promoting consultation through public participation networks.
It is not absurd to suggest that centralisation of decision-making, even at county level, can disempower and disenfranchise peripheral areas, for reasons as basic as geography. Neither is it outlandish to suggest that such powers can go unchecked. Unless, of course, elected councillors hold them to account on our behalf.
Having strong councillors is vital; they should always question, probe and ensure that decision-making is democratic and fair. And if your local candidates are not in favour of such transparency, or indeed, are not actively seeking it, that tells its own story.  
Local elections are your best chance to ensure that someone who represents your worldview and circumstances gets a seat at the table. My vote this year, like many others, has been strongly influenced by last year’s referendum campaign. I also naturally want more women around the table, but only 30 percent of candidates nationally are women; in Mayo that drops to 16 percent. So it’s a tough call.   
What about your party? Because of their perceived lack of importance in decision-making, the locals can offer greater opportunities to smaller parties or Independent candidates to gain a foothold. So if as a voter, you feel disillusioned with your own party, they present an opportunity to look past blind allegiance and peruse the menu. You might even be doing yourself – and the rest of us! – a favour.
Contrary to popular belief, becoming a councillor is no gravy train. Councillors are not paid particularly well, unless they can handle the duties on top of holding down a job – no mean feat, given the demands. While it does bring some prestige and privilege, it is not an easy job. It is challenging and time-consuming. Those who put their hand up – rather than hurling from the ditch – to become public property for five years deserve immense credit, regardless of their stripes.
Elected councillors have a responsibility to serve voters, of all allegiances, with integrity. Equally, however, voters have a responsibility to choose with maturity the best representatives, who will fight to deliver for their area, who are smart enough to have a long-term vision for the future, and who are adult enough to park party politics and encourage cross-party co-operation at a local level when it’s needed. Best of luck to all.