A Command Democracy

Dan Boyle is a former Senator and member of the Green Party. He is the Author of ‘Without Power or Glory – The Greens in Government’. Today he gives us his take on local government and the threats to democracy posed by our current system

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Progressive Democrats used to taunt that Ireland now had become Europe’s biggest command economy outside of Albania. On the surface there was something to this. State monopolies continued to dominate in energy, communications, transport and even some areas of food production.

However the taunt was towards the wrong target. Business was to be set free. EU competition laws and privatisation saw to that. No, the real danger to Ireland was not that of a command economy, but of a command democracy.

Local government in Ireland remains largely determined by the Local Government Act of 1899, an act that applied throughout Britain and the island of Ireland. While in other jurisdictions that act has been superseded, in the Republic of Ireland it still remains the template.

‘Reforms’ in Irish local government were about de-democratisation – limiting public engagement, lessening the decision making powers of elected local representatives.

This began in the 1920s with the introduction of the management system. Imported Sent from my iPhone
This created the distinction between Executive (decisions made by appointed officials) and Reserved powers (decisions by elected members). Imbalanced from the start, over the years an ever greater number of powers have been transferred to the Executive.

At best a City/County Manager could be seen as a benevolent dictator, the holder of an office that has never had any effective accountability mechanisms. The only real change that has occurred in this system, and it has been entirely cosmetic, is that the title has been changed from Manager to Chief Executive, lest anyone confuses it with being in charge of a football team.

At best all that really exists in Ireland is a system of local administration. Ours is the weakest form of local government in Europe.

For seventy years precious little thought has been given to the structure of Irish local government. That is until the higher echelons of our civil service became infected with the New Public Management (NPM) virus. This first manifested itself in local authority services being divested and privatised. Later it was to establish itself in a belief that local government units were too numerous, creating ‘unnecessary’ levels of consultation.

From the Green Party’s torrid period in government I was shocked to learn that I had underestimated a long standing prejudice of mine. That was the extent to which senior civil servants create and implement policy.

Recent changes in Irish local government have been administratively, not politically, led. Politicians, ministers, even political parties come and go, but the permanent government must have its way.

The modus operandi is the setting up of review groups, the membership of which is predetermined with enough of those who think the right way. There is an arrogance amongst the highest levels of Irish civil service that they know best, that they shouldn’t have be second guessed by the public. This creed, I’ve come to believe, is one of the greatest dangers to real democracy in Ireland.

Up until 2014 Ireland had a second tier system of local government in the form of town councils. 80 such councils existed with extremely limited powers. Changing demography failed to deliver even this limited form of local democracy to evolving urban areas.

The weak powers made town councils easy to lampoon. The popular TV series of the 1970s and 80s ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’ did so expertly, imbedding the concept of ‘Ballymagash’ into the country’s consciousness. That said they were also a mechanism for most quickly identifying and seeking to solve problems in local communities.

Their abolition in 2014 was accompanied by what was thought to be the trial introduction of unitary councils in Limerick and Waterford. I regret that I didn’t question that then. This has been no trial, this is revolution by stealth.

Little more than a year later review groups in Cork and Galway are expected to recommend unitary authorities for both counties. This would leave Dublin, as the only urban area of any size in the country, having its own unit of local government.

Let’s put the putative Cork/Galway proposals into context. The two counties between them are larger in area than Northern Ireland, albeit with about half its population. And yet it is being considered that two units of local government are sufficient for such a size of land area and population.

Between them their area is the equivalent of the size of three European Union member countries together – Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta.

The New Public Management virus has diseased the collective mandarin mind. Cost efficiency is now all with democratic control an unnecessary extra, more likely to interfere with effective administration.

A growing belief that if an economic benefit can be achieved we should limit democratic expression frightens me. If only the people who think like that could be made accountable.

  • aquifer

    If councils are the nursery for PRSTV politicians, skilled in doing local favours and hopeless at policy or principle, maybe we need to think this all through again, otherwise the mandarins with degrees really do know best. It was not the civil servants that sunk the republic, but the Fianna Fail ‘men of the people’ who failed to take their advice.

  • Dan Boyle

    The quality of councillor is axiomatic to the level of decision making powers that are available to them.

  • Tochais Siorai

    I’d love to think this is true, Dan but I’m dubious. Are you saying that more decision making powers would attract better quality candidates or the electorate would think more about who they elected?
    .
    As it is right now, I wouldn’t send most of my local councillors down to the shop for a loaf of bread with any confidence. I’d be terrified to give them any real power.

  • Dan Boyle

    Start with elected mayors with five year terms. The most effective systems internationally are the most devolved.