Delving in the den of democracy
IT’S dusting down time for an exercise in democracy, election time. There is always the argument that there is a democratic deficit in the various forms of government, be they local, national or European. The big concern is the blatant or subtle attacks on democracy by people in power who are not elected - council officials, civil servants or Eurocrats. Strange how democracy is the pre-requisite for any country wishing to join the EU yet the European institutions sadly lack democratic principles. The Libertas leader, Declan Ganley, has challenged the democratic deficit in the EU in a series of interviews with journalist Bruce Arnold, now available in book form. It makes for sober reading. The main parties are devoting so much energy to attacking Mr Ganley, no doubt they will become more blatant as Lisbon Two and the October deadline loom.
Michael Ring recently asked why a €1million announcement of support was announced for Westport Harbour ahead of the 2002 general election by a council official. The ‘allocation’ was withdrawn less than six months later. His party colleagues on Westport Town Council had reason to challenge the wisdom of two recent public announcements – sod turnings for the Gaelscoil and McConville Park. Such photo opportunities are fine when all elected members are informed. There was a delay (putting it mildly) in informing those other than Fianna Fáil councillors. Such acts seriously question the role and duties of council officials, especially in the sensitive ‘window’ of an election.
The Westport Town Council election is hosting 17 candidates. ‘Why bother?’ you are tempted to ask. ‘Why not?’ would surely be the reply. Most start out with good and noble intentions, some end up on the trail of the ‘Dunlop safety’ radial while others maintain their integrity despite the pressure of boredom, the influence of power and lure of corruption.
Westport Town Council meetings are marked for their special meetings at which the press is excluded. These ‘workshops’ take place regularly and cover many issues and are used to deal with issues outside of the public glare. No matter how many times representations are made to councillors by journalists it seems that the role of the workshop is central to democracy, Westport Town Council style. Perhaps the new council would adopt a more open and transparent manner when dealing with matters pertaining to life in Westport. Castlebar and Ballina Town Councils do not have to resort to such tactics. Granted, there are times when presentations need to be made to councillors and issues and matters explored but the bona fides of the ‘workshops’ in Westport must be questioned.
Better Local Government is another legacy for any incoming council to examine. It has failed. It is time to state it for what it is – a waste of public money. Taxpayers’ money, especially in these straitened times, needs to be better spent rather than on expenses for council officials and councillors attending meetings at which binding decisions cannot be made.
There are 4 seats in the Westport Electoral Area. Many of the local area meetings have more council officials attending them than councillors. Sometimes twice as many officials as councillors attend. What purpose does this serve? All of these officials are on expenses (most are based in Castlebar) and sit, waiting their turn to participate during the meeting. It is a complete waste of money. Better Local Government also introduced certain payments for councillors and many people argue that this was the death knell for local government. A price was put on democracy. Many county councillors earn more than €30,000 per annum. Town councillors do well also but not as well as their county cousins. The complete re-examination of how local government works, or does not work, as the case may be, would be an honourable goal for the next term of councillors. Bringing democracy back to the local level of elected accountability would also be an advantage. Council officials, unelected, have too much power, passed off under the guise of ‘executive powers.’ What happens when officials are involved in conflict of interests? Not a lot, seemingly. The layers of these conflicts will start to peel as time marches on because truth has the awful habit of rising to the surface.
In Westport Town Council the current Cathaoirleach, Cllr Martin Keane, looks certain to be re-elected. His popularity is unquestionable and his enthusiasm for the job beyond doubt. His extra-curricular activities, the Fuel Appeal for the Elderly and Westport Youth Activities, have won him many friends. Fine Gael’s Myles Staunton is another certainty. His hard graft work ethic and his drive to ‘meet the people’ will pay off. Fianna Fáil stalwart Margaret Adams also looks safe. Her tally might be down as part of a backlash against the party but she has the ability to rise above the frailties (and they are legion!) of Fianna Fáil and should attract strong support. Her colleagues Brendan Mulroy and Declan Dever might face the biggest test from their party colleagues, Dick Burke and Tom Flynn. Dick is music driven and wants Westport to be a ‘festival hub.’ Some, mainly business people and the young, will support him while others would prefer to see Westport develop along different lines, tempting the ‘blue euro.’ Tom Flynn has been grafting away for ages meeting the people on the doorstep, where it matters. If a negative party swing does not materialise Tom will benefit. Brendan Mulroy will face a strong battle from Ollie Gannon (FG). Both live in the Cottages. Both claim McConville Park as home territory even though Ollie was sidelined at the recent sod turning. That enflamed an already blazing desire to re-gain the seat he lost last time out. Declan Dever probably misses his fuel delivery run these days as it afforded him an opportunity to meet people. He has been out, traipsing the highways and byways of the urban area. How it pans out for any of them remains to be seen.
Peter Flynn has opted to represent Fine Gael in the county leaving Myles Staunton and Tereasa Maguire to contest alongside Christy Hyland, Ollie Gannon and Michael McLoughlin. With Myles assured and Fine Gael on an upturn Tereasa looks safe. They will want another one or even two. Some say three! Ollie looks good, Christy is hungry and Michael is tipping away.
Keith Martin has a colleague, David Fallon. Both are fresh Labour faces as Keith was last elected as an Independent before he picked the rose. He is also on the county trail and has not got the gift of bi-location! Meeting the people is what matters. His profile has been raised over the last couple of years. Sinn Féin’s Dave Keating is also on the double whammy with town and county. He should come home in the town. Others like the Green’s Fergus McAllister and Independents Joe Lavelle (former Labour) and Andy Wilson (former Green) are also batting hard. They will attract support but are doubtful to get elected this time out. Regardless, respect and honour to all those willing to put their names on the ballot paper, the bravest act in a democracy. They prove that democracy matters.