The threat of indifference

Notes from the Western Periphery

COMMUNITY VOICES The late Johnny Groden and Paddy Hopkins at Croagh Patrick. Pic: Conor McKeown

Why local government in Ireland is unfit for purpose

John Bradley

In 1987, I first noticed the drilling derrick silhouetted on the western slopes of Croagh Patrick while pottering round Clew Bay in my boat. I had not realised that prospecting for gold had already started. Later that evening I climbed up to the derrick along the new access route from Lecanvey and was horrified by what I saw.
Returning to my father’s cottage, I discussed it with him. He did not approve of the mining but, like many of his generation, felt powerless to do anything. I recall asking him: “Who speaks for the village?” I was more shocked by his puzzlement at the question than by his eventual answer: “There is nobody!”
The village communities along the south shore of Clew Bay were fortunate in that the destruction of the environment by opencast mining was so threatening that it induced a much wider opposition and information campaign. The Mayo Environmental Group swung into action, led by Paddy Hopkins and Sean O’Malley, and their campaign, based on reliable information and persuasion, won the day. Permission to mine was refused and the danger passed. Shortly afterwards, the Murrisk Development Association was set up and achieved much under the dynamic chairmanship of the late Johnny Groden.
The question that I asked my father more that 35 years ago still haunts me. Who speaks for the village?
The gold mining episode was a case where permission to prospect had been granted at national government level and validated by Mayo County Council, without the people in the affected areas being consulted or having a voice. Only through the energy and organising abilities of a voluntary group of citizens was an environmental disaster prevented. It could easily have gone the other way.

A different way
They do things differently in France, where I recently attended a conference. The first thing that a visitor notes when entering a small village like Giverny in Normandy (population 509) or Gabian in the Languedoc (population 840), is the ‘Mairie’, a building from which the locally elected mayor and village council operate.
The number of seats in a village council ranges from seven for communes with fewer than 100 residents up to 69 for larger territories with up to 300,000. The council is elected, and the mayor selected by a majority vote in a secret council ballot. The French think of every eventuality: in the event of a tied vote, the older candidate wins!
The mayor and the Mairie are responsible for important aspects of local community life in France, from local taxes to transport and schools to tourism. Their mandate includes establishing and managing the local budget and setting local tax rates (on property and services), where they retain a proportion for use as ‘own resources’. They define and execute local economic development projects and manage public services in the community, including transport, housing, and sports facilities. They approve planning permissions and protect and promote local heritage and culture.
A State Prefect ensures that the decisions taken by the mayor and council are in line with national policy while accounts are subject to examination by the Regional Chamber of Accounts. In many smaller communities, the mayor works in tandem with larger parts of regional government which oversee similar functions to those of a Mairie (hygiene, housing, public works etc) but across a wider geographical area.
To a visitor from France, the Irish system of local government must remind them of how their former colonies were governed. Power and budgets centralised in Dublin; local administration at the level of counties, covering areas with many towns and villages whose specific characteristics and needs are either ignored or left at the mercy of political clientelism; villages left dependent on self-organisation or ad hoc petitions and pleas to higher levels of authority.

Dysfunction
An example of dysfunctional local government is the water supply debacle in the area extending from Westport along the south shore of Clew Bay, embracing the villages of Murrisk (266), Lecanvey (150) and Louisburgh (434).
In Murrisk and Lecanvey, people still take untreated water directly from the streams flowing off Croagh Patrick. Louisburgh has a local water scheme that can experience capacity and supply problems. Mayo County Council was finally shamed into offering to connect this region to the Westport water main but demanded an advance payment of €1,540 for a project that the council claims will be operational by end 2023 but will almost certainly run into delays and financing problems.
Official indifference to the development potential of small Irish towns and villages is a direct consequence of a system of local government that is unfit for purpose. The council executive is a law onto itself, and the elected councillors (28 men and two women in Mayo) seem reluctant to hold the executive to account when there is wrongdoing (Editorial, Mayo News, June 21).
A very modest devolution of power to Urban District Councils was abolished for spurious cost saving reasons during the financial crisis. Swathes of the county are cut off from dynamic village-centred development by excessively rigid and unimaginative planning laws and a lack of basic infrastructure.
This system will never change from the top. It will only change under pressure from the bottom. Official indifference endures and is an even great threat than that drilling derrick on Croagh Patrick.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.