The Heart of Community

Sinn Féin local election candidate for Cork North East Stephen Cunningham talks about the importance of local councils.

The question of the importance of local councils is a simple one. Local councils up and down the island serve as the bedrock of Ireland’s system of government, and indeed, of our society.

Councils have two key roles – an operational role and a representative role, both of which are intrinsically bound together.

First, let us examine the representative aspect of councils. Local councils are fronted by a group of Councillors, most of whom are democratically elected by the people of their local areas, or constituencies. These Councillors are granted certain powers on behalf of their respective local authorities, which they use, more often than not, to represent the residents of their communities. This allows them to engage their constituents in dealing with local issues. It allows them to endow residents with an ability to express their local identity through engagement with the political process in order to improve and enhance their communities. These newly mobilised communities may in turn become involved in a process of change through the use of ‘people power’.

If we look at Cork City in recent times, for example, and the proposed closing of Scoil Mhuire Fatima in the North Monastery, parents and local Councillors were able to work in solidarity to lobby the Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST) to overturn their proposal to close the school. These plans were promptly overturned. There is no doubt that the work of Councillors, as well as the motion passed in Cork City Council calling for the school to remain open were instrumental in influencing the decision of ERST.

When we look at the operational role of local councils, we see a process which is crucial to ensuring that representation is backed up with actions. The Councillors have regular meetings where they vote on whether to fund local initiatives, have the power to vote on the yearly local authority budget and can grant an assigned amount of funds to community organisation and sports clubs. All of this is essential to ensuring meaningful, efficient, transparent and enforceable representation is given to people in regards to local issues.

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Local councils are vital to ensure that we do not have a wholly centralised government, who hand down orders to citizens as well as local organisations and businesses without understanding local issues, needs and concerns.

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Recent floods in Cork City lead to an outcry from councillors across Cork City to address the issue, which resulted in an allocation of over €50 million of government funds to address the issue; yet another incredibly vital success on behalf of Cork City Council. Without pressure from Councillors this may not have been the case if left to TDs and a centralised national government.

When we examine the importance of local councils from a more practical perspective, we soon stumble upon a number of issues that are of utmost importance for the maintenance of local councils.

Local representation from councils allows people to become familiar with their local politicians; their ideals, ideologies and track record. This imparts citizens with knowledge of who their local representatives are and, if these Councillors decide to stand for a General or EU Election in the future, allows for these citizens to ‘vet’ these representatives based on their past actions and local Councillors.

Local councils are vital to ensure that we do not have a wholly centralised government, who hand down orders to citizens as well as local organisations and businesses without understanding local issues, needs and concerns. Such a centralised government would struggle to cope and would provide inadequate governance through insufficient micromanagement. This centralised government would be incapable of dealing with local housing issues, granting planning permissions and so on across the island.

When we look at the future of local councils, there is cause for concerns. Recent government actions have threatened an already weakened local government system. 2012’s local government reforms are shaking up the system of local government entirely. After May’s local and EU elections, all 80 town councils will be abolished, leaving us with just 31 city and county councils. This may threaten the very fabric of local government in its operational capacity and has been a cause for real concern across the island since the reforms were first proposed. Citizens in small, isolated towns and their surrounding communities will be lacking in the vital representation that they need.

Anecdotal evidence also shows a further stripping away of power from local councils in the form of the Local Property Tax. The so-called Local Property Tax was first proposed by the Government with the guarantee that the funds raised from this tax would be pumped back into local services. However, it has since transpired that the funds will be used by the Government to do as they wish. Regardless of your views on whether or not the Local Property Tax is right or wrong, it is virtually unheard of for a local tax to be used for national means, as opposed to for local initiatives and development.

As more and more power is taken out of the hands of local councils and put into the hands of the Government, the common people lose out more and more. Local councils are vital to ensure that people are represented sufficiently not just on a national level, but on a local and regional level too. Further deterioration of the power of local councils only diminishes ‘people power’ and further disenfranchises people from the political process and local issues. We, as a people, must take more interest in supporting and engaging with our local councils to ensure that they work with us and, infinitely more importantly, for us. Local councils are at the heart of everything we do in our communities. Let us ensure that we strive to keep them open, accountable and strong.