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Don’t go: despite structural problems, no time for local government defeatism (March 2009)

Councillor Dermot Lacey rejects the viewpoint offered by Councillors Rafferty and Breen in December's Village

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” – so sang The Clash in their classic hit of the 1980s. According to two contributors to the December edition of Village, it is a question being asked by many members of City and County Councils, particularly in the Dublin area.

In the December issue, former Councillor Mick Rafferty told us why he was leaving and Fine Gael’s Councillor Gerry Breen why he was staying. The common feature of both was their sense of defeatism. Mick is calling it a day because he thought the procedures and politicking were too much and Gerry is staying, even though he is unhappy with the ways things work, or more accurately don’t work.

Regrettably Gerry offered no new ideas and Mick retreated to the concept, so beloved of those who actually wield power, of “participative democracy”. A policy that sounds good in theory but ensures in practice that real power remains with the elite. The picture Mick painted of the role of a Councillor, is not one I recognise.

The reality is that these Strategic Policy Committees were designed to contain Councillors rather than empower us. “Keep them busy and they will be less of a nuisance”.

In my sixteen years as a member of Dublin City Council I am proud of a record of achievement that has benefited both Dublin and my own electoral areas. I have also by and large enjoyed the work. Nor do I agree with Mick’s apparent view that all Councillors somehow share the same agenda and should work as if we are all on some agreed common course. I am a Labour member of the Council. I seek to advance my Social Democratic policies. I do not share the political objectives of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Sinn Fein. It is worth noting that of the sixteen, some went because they were elected to the Oireachtas, others because a political career had effectively been closed off by rivals, one moved to live abroad and some because their personal lives had changed since their initial election. In general we as Councillors do not set the rules by which the Council operates. More often than not they are imposed on us from the Department of the Environment in the Custom House. It was from there that the Strategic Policy Committees, Corporate Policy Groups and City and County Development Boards were dreamt up. It is these unproductive structures that impose the wasteful time constraints on Councillors. These are but some of the areas we need to change.

Dublin City Councillor Dermot Lacey

Mick is correct that the Housing Strategic Policy Committee, chaired by my colleague former Councillor Mary Murphy, over the last few years published progressive policy papers on housing and related matters. In better times I hope that these yield fruit. Yet, the reality is that during our “Celtic Tiger” years, as the policy papers piled up, the housing and homelessness list of Dublin City Council rose in parallel. The reality is that these Strategic Policy Committees were designed to contain Councillors rather than empower us. “Keep them busy and they will be less of a nuisance”. We will not however force change by walking away from the problem. For me Local Government matters. In terms of planning, housing, community development, provision of accessible recreational, cultural and sporting opportunities it is very often the first point of call. The fact that it has been starved of funding over the last decade should not obscure that fact.

While the detail of such reform is extensive the essentials are not. If they are to be in any way meaningful they must include:

  • An Independent source of funding for Local Authorities – not subject to the whims of the Department of the Environment.
  • Reform of the City and County Managers Act, creating a new post of Chief Executive Officer – accountable to and appointed by the relevant Local Authority following recruitment through the Public Appointments Commission.
  • A directly elected Mayor of Dublin with a five-year term and accountable to an enhanced Dublin Regional Authority.
  • The extension of the role of the Dublin Regional Authority to include Transport and Planning and subsuming bodies such as the Dublin Transport Authority and the Affordable Housing Partnership.
  • Real controls and limitations on electoral spending at local elections.

Yes, I want real reform. I sought election many years ago to improve my local community and because I enjoyed the cut and thrust of political life. In one of the many deserving tributes to the late Tony Gregory, one person wrote of Tony’s legal struggle to remain a member of the City Council following the ban on holding the dual mandate. Tony sought to retain his Council seat because he too knew that Local Government matters. The author of that tribute was Mick Rafferty. Mick was right. I have never regretted my decision to seek election to the Council and my belief that local government is the best model to deliver real reform to Irish Society has intensified over those years.

The Public need and deserve a better system. It is time for those who agree to Stand up for Democracy, Stand up for Local Government and in my case Stand up for Dublin.