Penrose resignation underlines the need for political reform…

I would never suggest that Willie Penrose is not a true supporter [erm, ex supporter – Ed] of the Irish Labour party… but he does represents a constituency (Longford Westmeath) that’s right on the edge of the Labour’s natural Pale…

Feverish talk of an unravelling may be extrapolating from a near exceptional example, at least in Labour’s case…

Penrose resigned, because he failed to do what his constituents put him into Leinster House to do.. That is defend his parish square of the county at all costs… Next door, in Roscommon South Leitrim, Fine Gael’s Dennis Naughton did precisely the same thing over the closure of A&E in the Roscommon Hospital…

On Twitter, which despite some eloquent voices from beyant, the more influential political commenters consist in numbers of a Dublin Cork nucleus, many of whom inveighed lyrically on the #parishpump hashtag over the vanity and fickleness of country TDs…

In truth, politically speaking, Ireland barely knows itself… Local people tend to cram all of their representative interests/expectations into the three or four men and women whom they send to Leinster House (or ‘the Dublin’ as one constituency colleague of Mr Penrose is inclined to put it on the doorstep)…

They have no faith in their County Councils not because they don’t trust their councillors as individuals, but because the councils themselves are little more than a management committee to the one guy who does hold executive power locally, the County Manager.

It causes massive irritation amongst local people when they are excoriated for voting Healy Rae or Michael Lowry. They put them in as a door stop on what they suspect is an executive burdened with fulfilling an national interest and which will pay no heed to the county’s needs without a tough uncompromising local voice.

When Leitrim was split in two (meaning no single candidate could raise a full quota from them), people in Ireland’s least populous county went apoplectic, precisely because they knew that from then on they would have no Dublin rep to fight for their interests.

Instead they were left with county council that has no strategic oversight, never mind responsibility for their well-being. In that sense Leitrim is the litmus test for the whole system. In local terms, Leitrim has no effective representative power within the current system.

Local government was killed off as an effective political force by Jack Lynch back in 1977… And nothing has been put in it’s place ever since… That needs fixing if both national and local interests are to be adequately not just protected but grown…

Willie Penrose is a canny (and, dare I say it, honest) enough democrat to know that life outside government and his beloved Labour Party is the only way to maintain that bond of trust with his own voters; so long as the terms struck between electors and elected within the current system remains.

If the Constitutional convention does nothing but fix the local government problem it will go a long way to fix the nonsense that passes for representative government at a national level too.

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  • The second of many I suspect.
    And hard to think that Penrose was ever in the Top 5 of Labour people and was appointed as little more than keeping him onside.
    Its hard to see someone being a Government Minister one day and on the back benches as an Indepenent the next day. While free to vote on any issue, he is at heart a Labour man but despite doing the right thing by Mullingar, it does not necessarily follow that he has done the right thing for his constituency ……Athlone for example. And while Labour Party councillors resign en masse, they will all be back on board when the time is right.

    We have a curious relationship with Party and Independent. Conventional Wisdom is FOR more Independently minded politicians. Yet when a politician acts independently and in the interests of people who actually voted for him, he is accused of “parish pump politics”…..(by a Dublin media with pro Labour and pro government sympathies??)

    And not wishing to be pedantic but someone will else will surely point out that Longford has fewer people than Leitrim.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ah, got me on that last. I may have been too obtuse in my intent but the purpose was to note the effect of structure on outcome. The roll towards independents is in part a reflex to that system.

    Its no coincidence that the Irish national interest is experienced as a burden by those charged with its keeping. But it’s surely alarming when local voters are similarly alienating by it!

  • SethS

    But if you accept a position in government then surely the national interest must come before the local. If you’re not prepared to accept that then don’t take the position. Many of Ireland’s problems stem directly from politicians trying to put one over “the Dublin” instead of doind what’s best fro the country. It’s like they haven’t noticed that the Brits have left.

  • Mick Fealty

    In theory, that’s absolutely true SethS. But you’ll see similar effects here starting to take place (though we’re much smaller and our pols have only a fractional share of the UK national interest to protect) if the RPA under delivers.

    The problem lies in the fact that it expects individual pols to balance two sets of often conflicting interests. Better to separate them altogether, and let the TDs get on with running – or scrutinising the running – the country.

  • FJH,

    Leitrim IS the least populated county in Ireland. ( Unless you have advance access to the census results?

    Mick, you should know better than to accept such “corrections” without sources 😉

    “Parish pump” is not just a pejorative synonym for “independently minded”. As was pointed out on the radio last night, when was the last time an Irish politician resigned on principle over a national matter?

  • I’d love to give County Councils more power, but seeing the sons and daughters of TDs warming seats there with little other to recommend them I can’t bring myself to advocate for it. On the other hand returning taxing powers to the CCs might be the one thing that forces Irish people to take the task of electing them seriously.

  • Mr Gallagher is indeed right and I am indeed……how can I put this……er wrong.
    Leitrim is indeed the smallest population.
    I really should learn to love Wikipedia.

  • Alias

    We don’t 29 county councils, borough councils, 5 city councils, and 75 town councils in Ireland with a population of a mere 4.3 million. If the biggest council can service 500k people then why do we have a council for 31k people? At most, we should have 4 or 5 super councils.

  • Mick Fealty


    That’s not necessarily pertinent to the main problem above. Although a supremely British legacy, people are generally bonded to their county, not least because of the legacy of the GAA.

    The problem is not the size, is that central government has scooped up almost all of the executive power and pipes it down from Dublin with little sense of local need, and the obvious corollary that locally elected national reps cannot focus on national and international issues.

  • Alias

    True, but that remains in the absract without the specifics of which powers need to be devolved. In the case of Penrose, a local autnority would never have the power to close an army base since that is a matter of national security and properly a government decision.

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s precisely why the separation of power is the first base principle.

  • Neville Bagnall

    For the Labour Party Willie Penrose has an even greater significance than for the Government as a whole.

    He was first elected in the ’92 Spring Tide, the first Labour TD there since 1932, but more than keeping a seat (a feat not achieved by many new TD’s in that cohort), he actually increased his share of the vote and is firmly entrenched at the top of the poll. This despite changes in the constituency.

    Further, the Labour Party constituency organisation he heads is one of the best organised in the country, and nearly the only one of significance outside the Dublin-Cork axis.

    Regarding reform, the need is obvious, but its a matter of culture, not structures. Parish pump and pork-barrel politics can be found in every variation of subsidiarity/centralisation, separation of powers and electoral system.

    At the end of the day, its the voters that have to change. If our systems were effective at detecting, highlighting and punishing administrative misfeasance, that might help to change the culture, but at the end of the day, we get what we vote for in the ballot box – usually mé féin and the next six months.

    There is opportunity in the crisis, but the moment is slipping away, focusing on the wrong things (imho), and falling foul of the way things have always been done. Conservatism – better the devil you know.

    I don’t think we can change the direction of the system in the timescale modern politics allows. We might have time to create a Servo-Tab effect.