Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The nuts and bolts of the local elections

Sunday, May 17, 2009

There are 114 local authorities in Ireland. These comprise 29 county councils (including two in Tipperary and three in Dublin), five city councils, five borough councils and 75 town councils.

The five city councils are Cork, Galway, Limerick, Dublin and Waterford. County and city councils operate on an equal basis, while below them are the town councils. Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Sligo and Wexford have borough councils, but these have no greater powers than town councils.

Their different title is simply a recognition of the borough corporation status they held prior to the structural reform of the Local Government Act 2001.

These different councils are the formal policy-making arm of the local authorities and are responsible for the adoption of annual budgets, by-laws and development plans.

Day-to-day management of the local authority rests with a city or county manager appointed following a recommendation from the Local Appointments Commission.

Local authorities’ functions fall into a number of general areas: housing and building; road transportation and safety; water supply and sewerage; development incentives and control; environmental protection; recreation and amenities; agriculture; education; health; and welfare.

It may seem from this list that local government has a broad policy remit, but the powers they wield in these areas depend entirely on central government.

For example, the main function of local authorities vis-a’-vis education is to administer third-level grants on behalf of the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Such is the subordinate position of local authorities.

The money trail

The key reason why local government remains subordinate to central authority is its lack of fiscal autonomy, of which there is very little in Ireland according to a 2008 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Prior to 1978, the primary source of finance for local authorities was domestic rates, but these were abolished following Fianna Fáil’s return to office in 1977.

Local government has never recovered from this decision, and serious reform can occur only alongside an increase in the revenue-raising powers of local authorities.

While reform was recommended in a 1996 government report, Better Local Government: A Programme for Change, only some of its provisions were introduced in the Local Government Act of 2001.

Two key aspects of this legislation were a ban on the dual mandate (holding political office at multiple levels) and a provision for the direct election of mayors with executive functions.

While the entry of the Greens into government with Fianna Fáil was expected to quicken the pace of reform, the jury is still out on the latter’s commitment. While a green paper – Stronger Local Democracy-Options for Change – was produced in 2008, the white paper promised is in the pipeline.

Local elections

To what extent will any of these issues concerning local government be raised during the local elections? There has never been any sense of a nationwide sentiment in favour of reform; with current economic concerns more pressing, this is not likely to change in 2009.

The local elections will, however, be an indirect indicator of attitudes to local government. Traditionally, opposition parties prefer to fight their local campaigns on national issues, while the government parties restrict their focus to local issues.

This is not due to any genuine desire to promote local government. Rather it is because the government tends to face a mid-term backlash from voters at local elections. To avoid such a backlash, government parties were often guilty of going so far as to postpone local elections.

This practice happened on 15 occasions until elections were fixed at five-yearly intervals by a referendum in 1999. This June there will be 1,627 councillors elected, 883 at county and city level and 744 at town and borough level.

This works out at one councillor for every 2,500 persons. This is a relatively low ratio; for example, there is one councillor per 118 persons in France.

Local trends

As a guide to what will happen next month, it is useful to consider past local elections. Some key trends are apparent: compared with Dáil elections, voter turnout is lower, Fianna Fáil’s support declines and independents tend to fare better. For example, Fianna Fáil’s average first preference vote at local elections since 1985 has been 33 per cent, while it has won 42 per cent of votes in Dáil elections over the same period.

While voters’ anger may well motivate an increase in turnout, it is likely that the fate of Fianna Fáil and independent candidates will not be much different.

* Examining local elections in a wider context, the effects differ for parties and candidates. For aspirant TDs, it is useful first to serve in local government, and this was the path taken by 77 per cent of TDs elected in 2007.

Those looking for the next crop of emerging TDs should focus on new councillors elected this June. Lucinda Creighton and Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael were both elected first-time councillors in 2004. This acted as a springboard for their successful Dáil campaigns in 2007.

In contrast, party success at local government level does not necessarily filter through to Dáil elections.

Fianna Fáil has traditionally bounced back from a poor local performance, while the smaller parties have not always capitalised on local election gains.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in politics in the department of government at University College Cork. His book, with colleague Dr Aodh Quinlivan, All Politics Is Local: a Guide to Local Elections in Ireland, is published by Collins Press

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