WHY are local elections important? In a way, this is a difficult question to answer in isolation because it opens out into another more fundamental question – do we need local government? There is no imperative to have a local government system and yet most countries in the world chose to have one. Why is this the case?
Of course, local government can be justified on practical grounds, that is, as a provider of services locally. Whether it is in the area of roads, planning or sewerage, it is essential to have an organ of government that is capable of delivering these services at a local level. An argument can be made, however, that service provision could come through a system of local administration or functional decentralisation, as opposed to local government.
Therefore the practical justification for local government is not enough – we need democratic reasons as well. The argument is that local government is an instrument of local democracy with councils of locally-elected politicians making policy decisions on behalf of their communities.
As well as local government being a means of self-expression, it also serves as a safeguard against central domination. If we accept this argument (and some may not) about local government expressing community identity, being a mouthpiece of shared local values and acting as a counterbalance against central domination, then we are dependent on the mechanism of local elections. In essence, local elections are about deciding how our cities and counties are run; they are not substitute General Elections.
However, this is not always how local elections are regarded. For every person who casts a vote based on local issues, another person will vote on national issues or on the basis of a national popularity poll. Tune into RTÉ on Saturday May 25th and see how the local election results are analysed. There will be very little talk about the results in a local context, rather the fixation will be about what the local result might mean in the constituency for the next General Election.
This unfortunately perpetuates the notion that local elections are not important.
The upcoming elections in Cork are especially significant since the passing of the historic Local Government Act 2019, which altered the boundary between Cork city and Cork county. The immediate impact of the legislation is that key urban parts of the hinterland of Cork city will now formally be part of the City Council jurisdiction. The extended city area now includes Ballincollig, Carrigrohane, Blarney, Glanmire, and Cork Airport, but not areas like Carrigtwohill, Passage West, Monkstown, Ringaskiddy, Carrigaline, and the more rural parts of the city hinterland.
The road to get us to this point has been torturous and pot-holed and many people who set out on the journey are tired, battered and bruised. The first boundary extension in Cork since 1965 followed protracted debate, characterised by a lot of mis-information and hysteria. At one stage it looked as if we were heading towards the merger of Cork City Council and Cork County Council, which, in my view, was a disastrous proposal. The proposal was partly based on a ‘Big is Beautiful’ narrative but while common folklore in local government is that big is better and more efficient, this conclusion is not borne out by research and evidence.
Thankfully, we moved away from the merger madness, and a city boundary extension was deemed more preferable than a maintenance of the status quo. There are enormous challenges associated with the extension, including the transfer of staff and financial arrangements between the two councils.
Inevitably, for a few years, there will be teething problems; hopefully in this period we will not hear the misguided view resurface that a merger would be a better option.
While Cork County Council is losing territory, the new arrangements present tremendous opportunities. For the last 50 years, the city clearly had outgrown its boundary and it was a source of frustration for citizens living in some parts of Togher, Doughcloyne, Douglas, Donnybrook, Grange and Rochestown that they were officially in the County Council area.
This situation did no favours, either, to the County Council as it had to manage this metropolitan overspill while also managing a massive and diverse rural territory from the Beara Peninsula in the west, Charleville in the North and Youghal in the east, not to mention seven inhabited islands. Cork county mayor Patrick Gerard Murphy has taken the right approach by speaking of the need for the County Council to adapt positively to the changes and seek new and creative ways of promoting business, tourism, and culture in the county’s central towns and villages.
Of course, the sad reality is that there is a bigger issue here, which a boundary extension does not solve. Local government in Ireland is significantly constrained and is suffocated by central government.
Changing the structure of a weak, dysfunctional, under-powered and under-resourced system of local government alters nothing. You simply have a new structure which cannot disguise the fact that the system remains weak, dysfunctional, under-powered and under-resourced.
As we head towards local elections on May 24th it is important that people participate and, irrespective of political opinions, every person brave enough to put her/his name on the ballot paper as a candidate, deserves enormous credit.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan is the Director of the Centre for Local and Regional Governance (CLRG) at University College Cork.