THE Labour Party, in a desperate bid to get back to its roots and to try to save itself from extinction, has been revising the positions it took in government on several issues. Not too long ago, its leader Brendan Howlin, admitted that its support for water charges when in government with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016 was a mistake, especially as this stance alienated so many of its core voters of old.
They certainly paid a big price for this and other unpopular decisions they took – or he claimed they were forced to take – when in power as the junior coalition partner, because the 36 seats they won in the 2011 general election were reduced to just seven after the 2016 election, pushing the party in the direction of political oblivion.
Brendan Howlin has a rather thankless and difficult task on hand to try to rescue the party’s fortunes and one of his recent attempts has been the introduction of a bill aimed at bringing back town councils, called the Local Government (Restoration of Town Councils) Bill, which has been making its way slowly towards to the committee stage.
Mr Howlin says that his bill provides a clear pathway for the restoration of town councils and he called on all those who say they want to support our small towns to support his proposed law, and for the government to move quickly to restore local democracy in Ireland with the representatives closest to the people. He claims that it has widespread support from TDs, including Fianna Fáil, who have been propping up the minority government for the past three years.
The Labour Party leader admits that towns across Ireland – Clonakilty being an exception – are missing out on opportunities for economic development due to the lack of a local figurehead, such as a mayor, with the support of a democratically-elected council that reflects all the views of the urban area, acknowledging also that, when we had town councils, people knew where to go to get problems solved.
However, his party was complicit in letting Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan railroad through legislation five years ago to abolish 80 town councils around the country, thus creating quite a serious democratic deficit at local level across the entire nation. Town councils, at the time, had become somewhat unwieldly what with all the allowances and perks that Fianna Fáil-led governments had thrown their way during the Celtic Tiger area.
In the past, most town councillors were delighted just to get the opportunity to serve their communities and act as a sort of watchdog against perceived neglect of their areas at county and national level, and they were prepared to give of their time to do this without remuneration once their out-of-pocket expenses were covered. For those with further ambitions, politically, town councils were the first step on the ladder towards becoming a county councillor or perhaps a TD or Senator, giving them an opportunity to prove themselves at grassroots level and develop political nous.
We need to get back to this type of basic model again, but without the big cost factor that existed when they were abolished prior to the last set of local elections. The Labour Party bill proposes that the costs of restoring town councils would be met from existing resources.
Mr Howlin’s frank admission that the abolition of town government as part of major reforms in 2014 ‘was a mistake and it’s something we want to rectify’ is welcome, if somewhat belated. ‘The needs of our towns are not being sufficiently met through the new arrangements that were introduced then. We need to restore strong local democracy,’ he added.
The bill proposes a Local Government Commission to consider and define each qualifying town and with each council to elect a minimum of nine town councillors, as heretofore, except in the case of towns with a population over 25,000, which would elect 15 councillors. There would be one local electoral area for each town.
From its own political viewpoint, the Labour Party needs to regenerate itself at local grassroots level and town councils would be a good place to start, especially as they traditionally drew their support base from urban centres throughout the country. They are pushing the government to restore town councils in time for the local elections in May of next year, but with only six months between now and then, the likelihood of this objective being achieved is decidedly slim.
Labour are in limbo, politically, as things stand and winning back a large enough cohort of their disaffected voters who feel the party betrayed their core values while in coalition with Fine Gael may well be too big an ask as there are alternative left-leaning parties and groupings out there now who have profited electorally from Labour’s loss of direction and are likely to consolidate those gains at the local and European elections next year.
Mr Howlin’s rehabilitation efforts may be too little and far too late for true redemption.