And so the annual ritual of elevating to high office the Cathaoirligh of County Councils and Municipal Authorities has been completed. With appropriate ceremony, the new incumbents have taken office, and each pair of noble shoulders has been draped with the golden chain, symbol of the dignity and grandeur of being the first among equals.
We wish them well, for we know that in Mayo all five office holders will shed lustre on their positions and will represent their people well. But it may be well to note that the chain is symbolic of other qualities as well. A chain can also represent subjugation, lack of freedom, limitations on autonomy, restriction on expression of opinion, a tether and a leash.
The reality is that, in Ireland, local government is a contradiction in terms, and it has always been so.
Every Irish government since independence has sought to centralise power, and to devolve as little as possible to locally elected assemblies. A hundred years ago, a new Irish government feared – with good reason – the power of the County Councils to which it was ideologically opposed. The national government in Dublin, with its pro-Treaty dominance, saw the County Councils, invariably Republican and anti-Treaty, as disloyal and unreliable.
The determination thus sown to keep County Councils on a tight leash was never to be relaxed in the century that followed. Power was jealously guarded at the centre to the extent that the central government armed itself with the right to dismiss a council which refused to do its bidding, a power which it did not hesitate to exercise on several occasions. And it was this hunger for centralised power which prompted a Fianna Fáil government, when acceding to power in 1933, to officially note that ‘the retention of local government bodies was becoming an expensive anachronism’.
In terms of real power and autonomy for local government, Ireland remains the odd man out in Europe. The narrow range of functions assigned to local councils because of central government domination seems to shrink with time, with many of the councils’ responsibilities being hived off to quangos that are allowed operate outside the system.
Regular surveys show that Irish local authorities enjoy only three out of the nine core competencies regarded as basic local functions in every other European country.
Some would argue that we are where we are because our betters in Dublin do not trust in our abilities to make our own decisions. This in turn is a paternalism rooted in centuries of our looking to the Empire to run our affairs, a sad legacy of colonialism. But what our betters fail to see is that weak local government leads to weak central government in that those elected to national office find themselves involved in parish pump issues when they should be legislating on matters of State.
There can be no more egregious example of the disdain in which local authorities are held than the diktat issued by the now departed minister, Eoghan Murphy, forbidding the discussion of planning matters at county council meetings. It was a decree more suited from the desk of a despot than from an administration whose respect for local democracy seems, alas, to be skin deep. It smacked of the Kremlin rather than Kildare Street.
When, a hundred years ago, local government was finally handed over to Irish men and Irish women, the nationalist leader William O’Brien commented that up to then, we had no more power than the badgers in the glen. But now, he said, we were taking local power back into our own hands.
He could hardly have been more wrong.