Community Development and the Demise of Local Government

Fergus O'Dowd, T.D. at the 2015 workshop

The 2015 Workshop was held on the 24th January, 2015 at 2pm in the Strand Hotel, Omeath against a backdrop of recent Local Government reform. There was a disappointing attendance given the wealth of experience on the topic of our two guest speakers: Fergus O'Dowd, formerly the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, and a former Lord Mayor of Drogheda; and Eamon O'Boyle, former Louth County Councillor and the final chairperson of Dundalk Urban District Council. However, although the turnout was disappointing, the speakers were far from disappointing and a very lively and informative discussion developed after a hesitant start.

Introducing the theme of the workshop the facilitator, Dermot Mooney, referred to the recent changes in local government and suggested possible topics for discussion: Who is local government answerable to? Where does participation come into it? What are the reasons for the reorganisation?

Fergus O’Dowd TD, the keynote speaker, said he had been involved over the years in local government and subsequently as a senator, TD and Minister of State, spending so far a total 41 years in public life. He expressed the opinion that the new divisions of local government were not good for people living in towns because they had lost their town councils. The focus on towns has been diminished, yet 60% or 70% of the population in Co. Louth lives in towns. Towns are losing their identity and consequently may lose out on investment. Drogheda which has had a Mayor since the 12th century now has none. He pointed out that those involved in local government will now more often find themselves voting about places other than the places they live in.As a result decisions may no longer reflect the real priorities. He gave an example of the Library being located in Ardee. He mentioned roads and lighting which should see greater expenditure in the towns yet are often neglected, and contrasted  the perfect roads in the Gaeltacht area with run-down streets in Drogheda.

Speaking about leadership he said anyone can be a leader. It comes from inside. You don’t have to be in a position of power, rather have a vision outside the box.

Fergus O’Dowd concluded with a plea to bring back the local identity.

Anne Muldowney and Dennis Pringle agreed that the move towards larger administrative areas was retrogressive. Dennis Pringle compared traffic regulation in Leixlip with arrangements in Ratoath. The decisions in Leixlip made by 7 local town commissioners made sense and were effective, whereas those in Ratoath, probably handed down from Navan, appeared irrational. He also expressed concerns that the forthcoming Public Participation Networks could be controlled and manipulated. Also some areas would probably miss out on representation in the PPN’s. It was unclear at this stage what their actual role would be: would they have any real power or would they just be talking shops?

Geraldine Kieran described a 20 year long losing battle to have a driveway in Blackrock taken into public ownership. She said it was frustrating dealing with the County Council. She said she can understand why people don’t bother any more.

Liam Kieran gave an account of the campaign for cycle lanes in Dundalk and for the Greenway between Carlingford and Omeath. He pointed out that people mix up politicians with administrators. He said it had been necessary to marry local qualities with politicians and to get a cohort of people behind him to get things accomplished.

Archbishop Michael Desmond Hynes said some of the administrators may not be happy with the changes good or bad. There was a lot of bluffing in the Strategic Policy Committees. He also expressed the view that the real power no longer resided in Ireland and that Ireland was being reduced to being a colony of Europe.

Paul Smyth expressed a similar view. Factories were closing down in Greenore yet the government did nothing. He said this was because they were being told what to do by Europe.

Dermot Mooney pointed out that most local services in NI had been centralised and taken out of the hands of local government and suggested this resulted in a more equitable allocation of resources, reducing what he referred to as 'postcode lottery'.

Michael Corrigan said there was a tendency for people to confuse politicians, administrators and leadership. He said that politicians and administrators needed to be guided by  leadership at local level.

Someone raised the question of why people in certain areas of Dublin City suffered from bad health and poor education. Fergus O’Dowd raised the question of the care of older people. Leadership is about looking after everyone. He said a politician was a listener. To get things done you must get someone into a position where they have to make a decision.

Paul Smyth said that Cooley Environmental and Health Group would like to get more people involved. 

Geraldine Kieran asked why the HSE used private care workers provided by agencies (which are owned by ex-HSE officials) instead of employing care workers directly.

Eamonn O’Boyle, the last and final chairperson of Dundalk Town Council, talked about planning decisions which were not in the best interests of the public, resistance from officials and a reluctance to correct errors. He instanced the Lough Muckno water supply system in Dundalk, the closure of the old custom’s clearance area, proposals about routing traffic away from the centre of Dundalk, the refurbishment of sea defences in Dundalk, the proposal to close the fire station from 23:00 until 08:00. To effect change is an uphill struggle, he concluded. Eamonn spent 10 consecutive years on Dundalk Town Council.

Liam Kieran recollected that the children of the wealthy industrialists who were his peers in St. Mary’s College, Dundalk, were usually at the bottom of the class. He maintained we are suffering from not just a financial shortfall - he thinks Irish business needs to be recapitalised intellectually. He pointed out that 56% of TD’s are landlords. Hence no rent control. He asserted that Irish people are chronically mean and we are plagued by apathy. Officials listen to the wealthy. Referring to the bank bailout, which cost the taxpayer €40billion, he claimed that the real reason for the bailout was to protect the shareholders in the banks .

Anne Muldowney said you get the government you vote for. Eamonn O'Boyle said that public representatives are a sop to the people. In practice it is almost impossible to divert civil servants, public officials etc. once they have decided on a course of action. He pointed out that not only did the officials form a “permanent government” but they controlled the media because they could threaten to pull advertising. He confirmed that the new CEOs had the same powers as the former County Managers. There is a lot of wastage in local government because of a tendency to commission consultants reports, at a cost of €150K-€300K a go rather than do something. It may sometimes take 6 or 8 reports when 1 or 2 would suffice.

Referring to larger issues like energy, Sean Crudden noted that “We appear to be wedded to a system which has a death-wish embedded in it.”

Present: Professor Dennis Pringle, mentor CEHG; Eric Hynes; Kevin Hynes; Geraldine Kieran; William (“Liam”) Kieran; Dermot Mooney, vice-chairperson CEHG, facilitator; Michael Corrigan; Fergus O’Dowd TD; Anne Muldowney; Archbishop Michael Desmond Hynes OMD PhD, secretary CEHG; Paul Smyth, chairperson CEHG; Sean Crudden, treasurer CEHG; and Eamonn O’Boyle.

Apologies: Joan Hardy; Kevin McGeough; Michael O’Hanlon

The workshop commenced at 14:15 and concluded at 17:00. The Strand Hotel served a dinner consisting of stew, brown bread, white bread, butter; apple tart, cream, ice-cream; tea, coffee, sweet biscuits. for those who remained.

Paul Smyth and Michael Corrigan

Liam Kieran and Paul Smyth

Michael Corrigan

Eric Hynes

Kevin Hynes

Group Photo

Geraldine Kieran

Dermot Mooney
All photographs by Seán Crudden.