Councillors’ reactions to Great Greenway Scandal revealing

Comment & Opinion

OUT IN THE COLD Mayo County Council remains frozen out of all Department of Rural and Community Development funding schemes.

Clientelism and political pragmatism colour too many of our councillors’ willingness to criticise Mayo County Council

How long will the Great Greenway Scandal haunt Mayo County Council?
It’s hard to say. The council is still frozen out of all funding schemes from the Department of Rural and Community Development after it was found to have fraudulently drawn down Government funding.
On May 31, Mayo County Council made a submission to the Department about enhanced procedures. That submission is currently being reviewed, and the Department will decide in the coming weeks if the council will be allowed regain its access to various Department funding schemes.
Even if the council is successful in this process, we don’t believe a line will be drawn under the affair.
The reputational damage will linger for some time – both at government level and at local level. Funding applications from Mayo County Council will be scrutinised to the last, while here in Mayo, the council’s image has taken a pummeling.
To recap on the scandal: the council was forced to repay over €1 million for capital greenway projects in the county after Department audits. These audits had revealed that the council had submitted signed declarations in October 2019 saying that a number of projects around the county were finished, and requesting completion funding from the Department.
However, audits on the ground in 2020 and 2021 revealed that not alone were the projects not completed, but some had not even started construction, including a greenway bridge in Achill and a 5.2km greenway from Old Head Beach to Louisburgh.
The news broke in December 2021 and the revelations have dominated council meetings ever since. It is fair to say that there have been differing views, with some demanding the council be held to account while others argue that the story is best put in the rear-view mirror.

‘No apology’
The scandal got its latest airing at last Monday’s monthly meeting of the council.
Cllr Peter Flynn criticised the wording of the council’s annual financial statement for 2021, arguing it did not go far enough in its condemnation of the Great Greenway Scandal. ‘No one has been held to account’ and there has been ‘no apology’, said Flynn.
Cllr Michael Kilcoyne (Ind) backed him up, but other councillors took a different view.
Cllr Damien Ryan said he is ‘a firm believer that in order to move forward we’ve to leave what happened in the past in the past’. Cllr Gerry Coyle said ‘sometimes we make a big fuss about mistakes and we never look at the good stuff’.
While there might be some arguments for not dwelling on something indefinitely, the issue is hardly ‘in the past’ if the council is still being denied access to key funding tranches.
Cllr Richard Finn then came in to criticise the Department of Rural and Community Development itself. “I cannot understand how Departments can sanction money for projects that are not shovel ready,” he said.
Blaming the department for Mayo County Council’s folly seemed a peculiar approach. Cllr Flynn and Cllr Finn got stuck into each other about it before Cllr Jarlath Munnelly interjected.
“Laying the blame at someone else’s door is idiotic to be honest … That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard in Mayo County Council, and that’s saying something,” he said.
It shows how divisive and heated the issue has become, and is worthy of further analysis.

Political pragmatism
While each individual councillor can have their own particular reason for their own point of view, years of observing council meetings has meant a couple of trends become apparent.
At council meetings there are generally a few councillors who regularly criticise the council, while there are more who either say very little or defend the council’s position.
Of course there are issues that every councillor is capable of being up in arms about. Generally, the closer to home and their voting base, the more likely they will seek to speak out.
But we think it is clearly evident that there are some councillors who feel that their role is to hold the council to account, to shine a spotlight on dark areas and to ensure the people of Mayo are getting the council they deserve.
Of course, there will be times when such approaches go over the line, when there’s grandstanding rather than fair and measured critiques. However, the role of such councillors is crucial in ensuring the council is subject to scrutiny – because efforts to control local authorities from above in Ireland have frequently been proven to be weak.
Then there are councillors who, though critical at times, are generally likely to fall into line and not rock the boat too much.
We’ve to be careful not to generalise too much, because over the years we’ve seen different councillors occupy many different points on this spectrum – but there’s no doubt that it is a general modus operandi for many councillors, term after term.
And it is easy – if frustrating – to see why.
We live in a culture of clientelism in Irish politics. Those who do not rock the boat too much often feel that such an approach will open doors when they are seeking to get council work done for their constituents.
One former councillor one told us about a housing query he received from a loyal voter. He told the supporter that he would gladly submit it but they were better off going down the road to another councillor who had a far better chance of getting a ‘fair hearing’.
And because so many voters will vote for politicians based on their ability to deliver for them at the most micro level, such an approach by councillors is understandable if far from ideal.
The Savage Eye sketch ‘he fixed the road’ sums up the mindset of far too many voters.
Because if that’s what we expect from our councillors, that’s what they will do.