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Back to the drawing board again for local elections

Comment & Opinion

It will take you over two hours to drive from Blacksod on the Erris peninsula to Delphi, just shy of the Mayo/Galway border at Leenane.
Not alone will you still be in the same county, you will still be in the same local electoral area, the vast West Mayo Municipal District.
It’s the same journey time that will take you from Galway City to Dublin, across six counties and countless local electoral areas.
How, therefore, can you call it a ‘local’ electoral area – or a ‘municipal district’ to give it the new title in place since the 2014 local elections – if it takes you that long to get from one end to the other?
It was well flagged in advance that the West Mayo Municipal District was far too big. The same warning went out about the Claremorris Municipal District, stretching from the bridge in Shrule to the Mayo/Sligo border in Charlestown.
They were all part of local government ‘reforms’, which included the abolition of the town councils. Many of the proposals were, justifiably, condemned.
But they were passed. Since then we’ve heard from several former town councillors that some government in the future will come to power with the reinstatement of town councils as part of its manifesto.
Maybe, maybe not. But after just one term, the changes made to local electoral areas are being reversed, vindicating the warnings and criticisms so quickly ignored in 2013/14.
It was of no surprise to hear from the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Number 1 that the current West Mayo and Claremorris Municipal Districts were deemed to cover areas ‘disproportionately large’ for local electoral purposes.
Now, it is being proposed to split the West Mayo Municipal District into two for local elections – a three-seater Belmullet Local Electoral Area and a four-seater Westport Local Electoral Area, with the border being at Tiernaur.
Claremorris is somewhat different. A six seater, that local electoral area will include the towns of Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis and Claremorris.
Charlestown and other parts in the north of the Claremorris Municipal District will join towns like Swinford and Foxford from the current Ballina Municipal District, and Kiltimagh from the Castlebar Municipal District, to form the Swinford Local Electoral Area, a four seater.
However, as the overall recommendations include that, generally, a local electoral area should not have any less than five councillors, or any more than seven, it is clear that exceptions have been made.
In all, there are five three-seat areas and 17 four-seat areas in the proposals.
However, the proposals also state that an administrative municipal district generally can not have any less than six members (councillors), the only exception being a five-seater where it is a five-seater local electoral area and recommended by the committee as needing to be a single municipal district.
So there is an obvious issue for proposed areas like Belmullet (three-seater), Westport and Swinford (four-seaters). All three are deemed too small to stand on their own as municipal districts.
It could be argued that it is not economically prudent to have a full municipal district for a three-seat local electoral area like Belmullet, with all the staff and officials that would be needed to run the area.
These challenges are rooted in the depopulation of so many of these areas on the periphery of the country. If you want an illustration of how far behind too many parts of our county have been let fall, well there you have it.
But what is to be done with such areas as far as local government goes?
The proposal is that the West Mayo Municipal District will remain in situ, though renamed as the Westport/Belmullet Municipal District. Meetings will take place with three councillors from Belmullet and four councillors from Westport.
Likewise the Claremorris/Swinford area, which will now become a large ten-seater municipal district for administrative purposes.
Flaw
But this is where there is quite a big flaw in the proposals.
How will responsibility be demarcated between the local electoral areas? The recommendations are quite clear.
“Municipal districts are comprised of one or more local electoral areas. Councillors elected to a local electoral area have functions in respect of the specified municipal district,” states the report.
So you will have the situation that councillors in Westport can have the power to decide on matters in Belmullet, where they have absolutely no mandate, and likewise Erris councillors in Westport or Louisburgh.
In the newly proposed Claremorris/Swinford Municipal District the same situation applies – councillors in Charlestown and Foxford can rule on matters in Shrule; councillors in Ballinrobe can rule on matters in Kiltimagh or Swinford.
While this is in effect how the Dáil functions, where TDs elected locally do not have the sole say in matters in their constituency, it is different at local government level, where that is exactly the way that councils operate. Funds are given to the county council and then split to the municipal districts.
Councillors in the districts have a say in how the money is spent locally.
But you could now have a situation where Westport electoral area candidates could out-vote Belmullet candidates when it comes to certain matters.
It is hard to see how such a situation would be democratic. Phil Hogan’s proposals, which were enacted for the 2014 Local Elections, were collectively called ‘Putting People First’.
Some year, hopefully, they will get it right.