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Calls for reinstatement of town councils

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BREAKING THE CHAIN Ahead of the abolition of town councils at back in June 2014, the chairs of the three town councils in Mayo gathered with their chains of office in front of the historic Michael Davitt statue in Straide. Pictured in Straide were, from left: Cllr Johnnie O’Malley, Mayor of Ballina; Cllr Noreen Heston, Mayor of Castlebar and Cllr Michael McLaughlin, Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council. Many believe the local democratic process has been eroded in the seven and half years since the abolition of the town councils. Pic: Neill O’Neill

Former minister Michael Ring and leading sociologist Fr Micheál Mac Gréil both argue for a radical change in Irish politics

Feature
Edwin McGreal

They are coming at the debate from very different perspectives and both make very different arguments but there was a lot of consensus in what two of Westport’s best-known public figures had to say in recent weeks about Irish governance and politics.
Michael Ring is giving his perspective from the inside out. As a TD since 1994 and Minister for Rural and Community Development in the last Government, he has borne witness to the intricacies of decision-making in Irish government.
His recent contribution in Dáil Éireann where he was critical of local authorities and civil service in general caused a stir. Many local councillors we spoke to in Mayo privately were agreeing with much of what he said.
Fr Micheál Mac Gréil has a very different perspective than Michael Ring. Both are passionate Westport men but Fr Mac Gréil comes at this debate from the point of view of an advocate. He has been assessing matters of regional development, among a myriad of other issues, for over half a century and campaigning for a better deal for the west of Ireland.
Authoring the Westport Tourism report for decades, he is well placed to see how the town has operated with and without its town council.
Their views make for interesting discussion points as we move into a new year.
Ireland is recognised as having one of the most centralised political systems in the world. From an economic point of view Ireland’s reliance on Dublin, at the expense of its regions, is pronounced by comparison with other European capitals. The same is true politically with so much power centralised in Leinster House and so little to county councillors.
One of the central recommendations in Fr Mac Gréil’s most recent Westport Tourism report was for the restoration of town councils.
Town councils were abolished by the then Minister for Environment Phil Hogan in 2014.
Fr Mac Gréil’s report found that 87.6 percent of providers felt that the Town Council was necessary.
“Pending such a restoration, it is recommended that an elected voluntary community council be established to guarantee the wider democratic integration of tourist services and other related community issues,” said Fr Mac Gréil at the November meeting of the Westport/Belmullet Municipal District.
After his presentation, a fascinating debate on local government and the arguments for it ensued.
Fr Mac Gréil referenced the work of the renowned French political scientist and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.
“You must bring back the town councils or else you are bidding farewell to democracy,” he told the county councillors. “The great authority on democracy was Alexis de Toucquerville. He said democracy was based on three pillars: local government, voluntary organisations and central government. These had to be countervailing. They each had to be strong enough to check the other. But in this country we have strong voluntary organisations like the GAA and the unions etc.
“We have very strong central government but all authority has been sucked away from local government. To take away the urban councils was almost a democratic sin, in my book. On the continent local people have authority on many things that we haven’t in this country,” he said.

Ringing the bell
Michael Ring started off his political career in 1979 as an urban district councillor in Westport (the UDCs were rebranded as town councils subsequently).
Speaking to The Mayo News after his recent Dáil Éireann contribution, the return of town councils is also something he feels must happen.
“I want the town councils back. People might have complained about them but they were tight and controlled and the officials were controlled by the members and not the members controlled by the officials which is what is happening now.
“We are one of the most centralised countries in Europe. The rest of Europe is giving more and more power to the regions and to local level and we’re taking it away,” he said.
In his Dáil contribution he hit out at several groups including planners, county managers and civil servants in general.
It’s worth relaying the bulk of what he said.
“[People] come down to Mayo and come down to Cork and come down to Kerry and they want to build a holiday home and the minute they build the holiday home, they don’t want anyone beside them and they’re objecting.
“We had objections from Dun Laoighaire, we had objections from Wicklow, we had objections from Germany to local people. [If we] don’t do something with local authorities and ... planners …
“Do you know something, what’s happening in this country is we have a dictatorship. Not a political dictatorship but a public service dictatorship … They actually don’t care about the minister now, the local authorities. They’re actually gone out of hand.
“This Government, the last Government, I was part of it myself, I preached it every time at the Cabinet that these people were gone out of hand.
“And the Dublin 4 media and RTÉ and all these media people criticising the likes of Deputy (Bernard) Durkan, Deputy (Paul) Keogh for making representation for the people that elect us. And they want it left to An Taisce? An Taisce? They’re the ones that are deciding plannings now in this country.
“I am starting a campaign in the New Year, I’ve the bite back in me, I am ready for a fight. And I can tell you one thing, my campaign is going to be if you, Leo (Varadkar), Micheál Martin and Government don’t take on the public service, I don’t know where this country is going to be. It is time that a small bit of power came back to the elected representatives.
“I am nearly 26 years here. Did you ever see a public servant sacked? Did you ever see a public servant disciplined? Do you know what they do? They kind of reward them, put them into an office and give them a bigger office just to get rid of them if they’re causing trouble. Now, there has to be accountability. If you were working for the private sector, you would be accountable. There is no accountability in the public service.
“And the county managers … well do you know something? And I know there’s fellas here that will lick them and fellas here that love them, but I tell you this, it is time the power was brought back to the elected representatives in this country … If we don’t bring power back to the people, the people will take the power off the politicians,” he said.

The interview board
Speaking afterwards, Deputy Ring said he was not looking for people to be fired but was making the point politicians are out of a job if the voters are not happy with them.
“Politicians have to go before the interview board every four years, more or less, and if we’re not doing our job, we’re gone. If you get into the public service, you’re there for life,” he said.
He argued that there needed to be more power in the hands of elected politicians.
“Too much is controlled by county managers and the permanent government and not enough with politicians.
“I want power to go back to the elected representatives. We pretend we have power but we don’t. I had to be strong as minister or else the civil servants would have been telling me what to do all the time. A lot of the schemes I brought in were met with opposition from the civil servants but I pushed them through,” he said.
He agreed that the erosion of political power might be down to corruption which plagued Irish politics in the 1980s and 1990s but argued matters had went too far in the other direction.  
“A small percentage of people let the State down and the people who elected but, even still, people still could vote them out at the next election, there was a corrective curve there. There’s no corrective curve like that in the civil service. The non-elected permanent government should not have more power than elected TDs.”