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Column Don’t trust the government? Then let’s put local people in power

Call them gombeens if you want – but handing money and power to local councils would help fix our democracy, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna wrote for about the ‘Lost Decade’ Ireland is facing into, and why we need a new vision for the nation to bring us through it. In this fourth part of his series on ways forward he argues that we need to really put recovery into the hands of the people – by making radical changes to our “castrated” councils.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT IS a castrated organ in Ireland, with mouthpiece councillors acting as subsidised constituency workers for national TDs. These TDs sit in judgement over policy and spending for the entire land from a few square miles of central government buildings that are removed from the reality outside their front doors in Dublin, let alone anywhere else.

If we want truly effective government then we need to take it from the hands of the mandarins in central government and give it wholesale to local communities.

Every five years we go to the polls and elect 1,626 councillors. Apart from €16,724 a year plus expenses these council seats aren’t worth much to anybody, because the power in local government rests with non-elected managers appointed by government.

Councillors who really put their minds to it might save a swimming pool in the budget that is presented to them as a near fait accompli by their bureaucratic betters. All executive management resides with the non-elected in local government.

Local government is a €4.656billion-a-year enterprise, using 2010 figures as the most recent comprehensive accounts. Central government provides 40.6 per cent of this and the balance is charges and local government rates, the latter of which raise over €1.3bn annually from businesses.

Households will bear more of the burden through property, water and other taxes and charges as government shifts responsibility and spends your centrally levied taxes to keep itself in special advisers and other such paraphernalia. In essence they’ll keep the same amount of tax while levying new charges to make you pay more for the local services you receive today.

Local government spends a little over €1,000 for every person in Ireland, versus the €11,000 a head that our national government puts to wise use. The 15 members of government who decide how this money is spent do so at a level of one minister for every 300,000 of us, and apart from being quite distant from people the ministers tend to sometimes use their discretion to give a bit too much to certain groups.

‘We have a disconnect between citizens and government’

One recent sports minister sent three times the national average of grants to his constituency. (Of course, this current government is all about new politics. One couldn’t possibly assert that their broken promises, cronyism and denial of economic reality is any indication that they might be found to be doing similar.)

We also have a disconnect between citizens and our highly centralised government: When a community cries foul at a departmental decision, say to cut a local hospital, they are looking at a budget of billions with no context on how saving their interest might affect another community somewhere else.

I believe that we should turn those figures around in favour of local government and create executive elected local government that can manage resources at a level that citizens can understand and influence. This is the system of subsidiary or ‘localism’ that is used in many countries, including big welfare states like Sweden and Germany and not limited to smaller government countries like the United States.

Germany has 429 districts and over 14,000 municipalities, with one district for every 191,000 people a municipality for just shy of every 6,000 people on average. In France 80 per cent of communes serve a population of less than 1,000 people.

This web of local government works because local authorities band together when too small to provide essential services by themselves, and communities choose what their priorities for investment and government spending will be according to their specific needs.

Central government sits over it all setting national laws and standards that must be followed – like the provision of universal healthcare or education – and provides transfer payments between rich and poor areas. Our government does this today, but in a far less transparent manner.

In the United States half of all taxes are collected by the federal government, but it sends 20 per cent of that back to the state and local levels in transfers. When you discount their massive military spending the federal government represents a third of all direct government spending, versus 95 per cent in Ireland.

If we were to spend something like this, local government would spend €7,000 a head and national government €4,000 to do its thing versus the €1:11 ratio today. That would be about €32billion spent by locals and €18.3billion spent by central government in 2010 money. It would be enough to keep ministers in Mercedes. But one can see that central government apparatchiks might resist the idea that their budgets be sent off to the provinces. After all, don’t they spend it so well?

‘Communities would become masters of their own destiny’

Communities with elected local government that wields executive power and a substantial budget, and with direct taxation control, would become masters of their own destiny. When government spending takes place at a local level voters can better understand and influence it, making decisions in terms of thousands and millions of euro rather than hundreds of millions and of billions.

Communities wielding the tools to fashion their own destinies can decide their priorities and find paths to achieving their goals. Communities could decide their own local tax and spending strategies, and make more nimble changes to programs than the behemoth that is central government can ever manage.

A regular feature of US politics is local ballot measures, in which for example localities decide whether or not to raise a temporary tax to pay for a specific item – say, a one year tax on restaurant covers or hotel stays to pay for upgrading school buildings. Communities have to weigh what they want to achieve and make the difficult choices that are out of our hands today.

It could be left to communities to decide if they prefer elected councils on the existing term or a strong mayor on a shorter electoral leash. We would go from a system of local government that is tightly regulated by Dublin with toothless elected officials on the ground to one in which voters can take complete control of their destiny.

Central government holds the reigns extremely firmly in Ireland whilst we maintain a parochial political system. Too many bad decisions are made by policy-makers far removed from the best people to make them: Locals elected by locals. Some may warn that communities may elect gombeens. Well, so be it – enjoy democracy responsibly and better they issue a plague on their own house than have a national government of local interests.

This is just one reform to move Ireland forward, but it is a key one: Our present system of tight central control has left us with a broken country and a disconnected citizenry. It’s time that we take back our country and run it the way that our most successful peers do: With strong local control.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

You can read his previous pieces on the way forward for Ireland on here.

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