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Coronavirus has forced some councils to take a new approach to local democracy

Some are sitting, some aren’t – how are councils in Dublin responding to Covid-19?

A member of the Garda Traffic Corps outside Dublin City Hall.
A member of the Garda Traffic Corps outside Dublin City Hall.
Image: RollingNews.ie

COUNCILLORS ACROSS THE country, like other workers, are struggling to fully adapt to the new realities of Covid-19. 

Elected representatives around the world have been trying to solve the obvious issues of packed parliaments during a pandemic, all with varying degrees of success. 

In the UK, the House of Commons have effectively utilised Zoom, while in Germany quorum for meetings of the Bundestag was cut to a quarter. 

In Ireland, the Dáil – apparently bound by a strictly literal constitutional spin on the word “place” – has remained sitting, albeit in a more socially distanced form and with fewer members. 

Local councils, in contrast, have found themselves taking diverging approaches to local democracy in a national epidemic, particularly in Dublin. 

Dublin City Council, which typically holds a monthly meeting of councillors in City Hall, decided to switch to Dublin Castle to ensure a reduced number of councillors could sit safely. 

Legal advice, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council told TheJournal.ie, stated that it was not possible for the full council to meet remotely – thus necessitating some kind of physical meeting that just about met quorum. 

What followed on 11 May was a perfectly normal – if abridged – monthly council meeting in one of the large rooms inside Dublin Castle. 

Seventeen councillors, representing all the various parties and groups, were in attendance alongside the Lord Mayor. 

Green Party councillor Lawrence Hemmings told TheJournal.ie that the system had worked “quite well”.

Some local area committees are also meeting virtually and Hemmings suggested that, in the short-term, the new approach was a success. 

However, he said that he wasn’t sure a socially-distanced system could cope with with more contentious, complex debates. 

“People would definitely want their voice heard and to represent their views and values,” he said. 

To many councillors, not being able to attend a meeting and make a case for their local area would, he said, be frustrating. 

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“Putting pressure on two or three representatives of your group would be hard,” Hemmings suggested. 

Other councils are taking different approaches. While Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council sat on 11 May with 13 members, Fingal County Council did not hold a meeting in April, citing public health guidelines. 

A spokeperson for Fingal Counity Council said that on Monday a “virtual governance and oversight meeting of Fingal councillors was held” in which councillors discussed finance, business and housing supply and the impact of Covid-19. 

While councillors are considering a return to in-person meetings in June, no decision has yet been made. 

In the long-term, can parliaments and council meetings work with limited sittings? Possibly, it seems. But it does mean that the productive rough and tumble of local debate will be lost – some say, for the worse. 

“When it comes to contentious stuff, I think it would be quite difficult,” says Hemmings. 

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