IN 1982, Conor Cruise O’Brien used the phrase Gubu - Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented – to describe the Charles Haughey government of the time which was embroiled in a series of scandals.
The term could possibly be used to describe the revelations this week about the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR), the statutory committee chaired by Alf Smiddy to examine local government arrangements in Cork.
The one difference would be that the details revealed this week through Freedom of Information are not unbelievable.
In fact, very many people connected to the process are not the least bit surprised that senior civil servants in the Custom House and the chair of the committee were determined that there would be one outcome to the process – the amalgamation of Cork City Council and Cork County Council.
I was suspicious of this from the start due to the way that the CLGR was established. After all, let us remember that in 2012 Minister Phil Hogan outlined that there was a strong case for a boundary extension in Cork and he gave the two local authorities five years to agree it.
Then in 2015, the new minister, Alan Kelly, decided to appoint a group to push the boundary issue but, from nowhere, added that a merger of the two councils should also be considered.
This was a surprising and highly suspicious development, and my fears that a merger outcome was pre-determined were strengthened by my subsequent dealings with the chair of the committee. It was clear that only one outcome was being considered.
For my part, I was against the merger from the start – my position based on 25 years of research in this area (see my article inThe Southern Star, March 9th, 2015). First and foremost, I am an advocate of enhanced local government in Ireland. I am on the side of local democracy. I am on the side of Cork City Council and I am on the side of Cork County Council. I want to see both councils empowered.
The Smiddy majority report is an appalling piece of work, which completely ignores the weight of international research evidence. We now know that the whole process was a sham and there are some fundamental issues to be discussed, as follows:
Given that Dr Richard Boyle of the Institute of Public Administration had been commissioned to provide research for the CLGR and to fact-check, there should have been no role for supposedly neutral civil servants to provide information (especially of a one-sided nature) to the chair.
It is claimed that information was supplied to the chair because he had no background in or knowledge of the local government system. This begs the obvious question – why would he be appointed as the chair of a statutory local government committee? It is staggering that the chair of the committee pressed the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to make a formal submission to the process. What about civil service neutrality and impartiality? It is scarcely credible that the chair would write to Dr Boyle and ask him to add to the majority report because he (the chair) wanted to ‘blow apart’ the arguments contained in the minority report by Dr Theresa Reidy and Professor Dermot Keogh.
Why were Reidy and Keogh denied due diligence when they sought to have the financial figures presented to them independently verified?
There are many other troubling questions which could be posed and the information revealed this week is only the tip of the iceberg. Senior officials in the Custom House, the chair of the now discredited committee, and former minister Alan Kelly, are all in the dock. At the very least, apologies should issue to Dr Reidy and Professor Keogh for the appalling manner in which they have been treated.
Their minority report has since been vindicated by the Boivard report and the Mackinnon report. Meanwhile, the shoddy majority report has been dismantled and discarded. The one positive from this sordid debacle is that the merger madness has been dropped. Sanity has prevailed and Cork County Council has conceded that a boundary extension is needed. It is time to move on from the farce of the CLGR.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan is a UCC lecturer in local politics and director of the Centre for Local and Regional Governance. He is the author of six books, including ‘Dissolved: The Remarkable Story of How Cork Lost its Corporation in 1924’, which will be launched on October 26th.