Local elections could be most – or least – important in Irish history

Peter Nolan, National Secretary

Peter Nolan, IMPACT national secretary for local government and municipal employees

IMPACT trade union has said the local government elections on 23rd May could be the most – or least – important in the history of Irish local authorities depending on whether or not Minister Phil Hogan gives real powers and resources to new municipal districts, which are set to replace town councils under the Local Government Reform Act. The union, which represents over 12,000 local authority workers, also said the continuing removal of responsibilities from local authorities could eventually make it impossible to justify local taxes, including the property tax.

Speaking at a major Dublin conference on the future of local government – which also featured environment minister Phil Hogan and other top speakers – IMPACT national secretary Peter Nolan said new local authority structures offered a golden opportunity to establish the kind of vibrant local democracy common in most EU countries. But he feared the opportunity would be missed because the powers and staffing available to municipal districts would make them even less effective than the current structures.

“Councillors and candidates working hard to get people excited about local democracy face an uphill battle because far too much power still remains at the centre. Sadly, there’s little indication that this is about to change, despite the opportunity presented by the Local Government Reform Act, which arguably heralds the biggest shake-up of local government in the history of the state.

“No other European state has such weak local democracy and, despite their hard work and commitment, Irish local councillors remain the most powerless in the EU because central government determines virtually all local authority funding, staffing levels and responsibility for services. We need real reforms that give local citizens and communities the same level of democracy and subsidiarity as other Europeans,” he said.

He also criticised successive governments for stripping local authorities of responsibility for refuse collection, driver licensing, education grants, direct responsibility for water provision, and other services. “Local democracy badly needs some champions in Irish society. If central authorities continue to take away local government responsibilities, local authorities will become empty shells. It will become impossible to demonstrate the need for local elections – or justify local taxes, including the property tax,” he said.

Mr Nolan said the situation could start to change if the minister valued the new municipal districts, ensured that they were adequately resourced to deliver services, and clearly outlined how the transition from town councils to municipal districts would be implemented.

Mr Nolan was speaking at an IMPACT conference called Local Government 2025: How will local services and local democracy fare?’ which is exploring how local services, accountability and democracy will fare once reorganisation and reforms now underway rapidly change the shape, size and responsibilities of local authorities. Other key speakers include:

  • Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council Manager
  • Paul Reid, Fingal County Council Manager
  • Councillor Jude Devins, Local Authority Members’ Association
  • Councillor John Meehan, Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland
  • Mark Callanan, local government expert from the Institute of Public Administration
  • Peter Nolan, IMPACT national secretary for local government and municipal employees
  • Aodh Quinlivan, local government expert from University College Cork
  • Mike Allen, Focus Ireland
  • Joe Finnerty, homelessness expert from University College, Cork.