The local government system in Ireland underwent its most radical change in over a century in 2014. Whilst the full effect of these reforms at the time of writing remains unknown, there is a concern that they may result in a reduced opportunity for public participation in, or influence upon, decision making. To provide context, this page provides a brief historical introduction to local government in Ireland.

Pre-Modern Local Government

The modern system of local government in Ireland begins with the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. In earlier times local government had largely been the domain of the County Grand Juries, under the control of the big landlords. Originally the main function of each County's Grand Jury was the administration of justice, but in the following centuries they took on more functions such as the provision of roads, bridges and public buildings, and the running and upkeep of local institutions such as dispensaries, court, fever hospitals, county infirmary, and the county gaol. They also collected a tax called the county cess which was used to finance public works.

Although often ineffective, the Grand Juries were supplemented by Borough Corporations, of which there were 68 in Ireland prior to the Municipal Corporations Act (Ireland) 1840. These corporations were governed by a propertied minority in each town. The Municipal Corporations Act (Ireland) 1840 reduced the number of Municipal Boroughs to 10 (Belfast, Clonmel, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin, Kilkenny, Limerick, Londonderry, Sligo and Waterford) and conferred a less powerful Town Commission status on many of the smaller towns. Dundalk was one of the towns that lost its Municipal Borough status in 1840. Wexford also lost its Municipal Borough status in 1840 but had it restored in 1846.

The Irish Poor Law in 1838 represented the first step towards a more democratic form of local government. Ireland was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions (although this rose to 163 in 1850 - 126 in what later became the Republic). Each Union was run by a Board of Guardians, elected by property owners, which was able to raise funds from rates levied on property owners. Each Poor Law Union built a workhouse between 1838 and 1851 to house destitute people from its own area. Most workhouses included an infirmary. However, the workhouses remained unpopular with both inmates (because of the poor conditions) and with ratepayers who resented having to pay to support a system which many regarded as inefficient.

Local sanitary authorities were established in the major towns from the 1840s onwards with the authority to build sewers and protect water supplies. However, significant changes did not occur until after the Public Health (Ireland) Acts of 1874 and 1878. The 1878 Act identified 40 urban sanitary districts in towns having a local authority and a population of 6,000 people or more. Smaller towns were designated rural sanitary districts - these de facto tended to be coextensive with Poor Law Unions. The sanitary services were run by the municipal authorities or town commissioners in urban areas, and by the boards of guardians in rural areas. The Public Health Act (1878) empowered local authorities to destroy unsound food, supervise slaughter houses, and isolate people with infectious diseases. However, few authorities showed the necessary commitment, and deaths from infectious diseases remained high. The death rate declined from 2.8 to 1.5 per 1,000 between 1882 and 1906, but it still compared unfavourably with 0.9 per 1,000 in England.

The Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898.

Local government was totally reformed under the Local Government (Ireland) Act in 1898. The power of the landlords, who controlled the County Grand Juries, and the Poor Law guardians was replaced by more representative local authorities. Counties, as opposed to Poor Law Unions, were re-established as the main unit of local government, except now they were controlled by elected councils. The 6 largest cities (Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Londonderry, Limerick and Waterford) became County Boroughs with similar powers, controlled by an elected corporation.

A second tier of local government was introduced at the sub-county level. Towns with a population of 1,500 became Urban Districts with their own town council. (A few retained the title of Municipal Borough, but apart from having a mayor they had the same powers as an Urban District). The rest of each county was divided into Rural Districts (largely based on the Poor Law Unions). Urban and Rural Districts had designated local powers, but were subservient to the Counties. The Poor Law system survived in a residual form to look after the poor.

Apart from relatively minor changes (such as the upgrading  of Galway to County Borough status in 1985, and the division of Dublin County into Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, and South Dublin Counties in 1994), this system of local government remained more or less intact for over 100 years. The most significant change in this period was the abolition of Rural Districts in the Free State in 1925, although they survived in Northern Ireland until the introduction of District Councils in 1973.

The Local Government Act (2001)

The Local Government Act (2001) attempted to simplify the local government system by redefining the existing structures into a two tier system. The top tier consisted of 29 Counties and 5 City Councils (the 5 former County Boroughs: Dublin, Cork, Galway, Waterford, and Limerick) having general responsibility for all functions of local government. A second lower tier, consisting of 80 towns within the territory of county councils, were defined as Town Councils with more limited functions. This second tier replaced the exisiting Urban District Councils and Town Commissions and reduced the status of certain Borough Corporations from a position of equivalence with County Councils to one of equivalence with Town Councils. Although reduced in status to the level of Town Council, the city of Kilkenny plus four other towns (Clonmel, Drogheda, Sligo, and Wexford) were permitted to use the title of "Borough Council" instead of "Town Council".

The Local Government Reform Act (2014)

The reforms introduced in 2014 were outlined in Putting People First: Action Programme For Effective Local Government published by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2012 and enacted in law in the Local Government Reform Act 2014.

These reforms resulted in a major reduction in the total number of local authorities from 114 to 31. Limerick County and Limerick County Borough were merged to form a new combined Limerick City and County Council; Waterford County and County Boroughs were likewise merged to form Waterford City and County Council; and North and South Tipperary County Councils were merged into a single County Council. The number of top tier administrative units was thereby reduced from 34 to 31: 3 City Councils (Cork, Dublin and Galway), 2 City and County Councils (Limerick and Waterford) and 26 County Councils.

The elected second tier of Town Councils was abolished, but replaced by a new second tier of Municipal Districts, in effect sub-divisions of the County Council each consisting of one or more local electoral areas (LEAs). However, the district councillors are simply the county councillors elected from the LEAs in the Municipal District. Thus the total number of elected representatives was reduced from 1,627 to 949. In the case of Louth there are 3 Municipal Districts (Ardee, Drogheda and Dundalk, with 6, 10 and 13 councillors respectively). The Ardee and Drogheda districts are each comprised of a single LEA, whilst Dundalk consists of two LEAS (Dundalk Carlingford and Dundalk South, electing 6 and 7 councillors respectively).

Municipal Districts that include pre-existing cities or boroughs are referred to as "Metropolitan Districts" or "Borough Districts" and will continue to have mayors as will those districts containing county towns. Thus the Drogheda Municipal District will be referred to as Dogheda Borough District, but its powers will be the same as other Municipal Districts. In all other councils the equivalent office is known as Chair/Cathaoirleach or Leader.

Public Particpation

Concerns have been expressed that the reduction in the total number of elected representatives may result in a reduced role for public participation in the decision making process. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government consequently published the report of a working group chaired by Fr. Sean Healy in 2014 on Citizen Engagement With Local Government proposing Public Participation Networks (PPNs) to replace the Community and Voluntary Forums which did not operate very effectively previously. The PPNs are due to be implemented in 2015. Louth County Council is tasked with setting up the Louth PPNs, but once it is established it will operate independently of the County Council. The County Council has published a Framework For The Establishment And Operation Of Public Participation Networks in County Louth.