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Column: Gerrymandering accusations pale in comparison to new plan for regional authorities

Fine Gael stand to wield an inordinate and undemocratic level of influence under the new system being introduced by Minister Hogan, writes Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

Eamon Ryan TD and leader of the Green Party

MÍCHEAL MARTIN MISSED the target when he accused Phil Hogan of gerrymandering the new local election constituencies. The real stroke being pulled here is in the way that people are going to be appointed to new regional authorities. The terms of reference for designing the local constituencies should lead to fairer and better balanced representation across the country, but what we’re getting at a regional level is the exact opposite.

The Government are reducing the number of regional bodies from eight to three. One will combine all the Munster counties, along with Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford. A second is made up of the rest of Leinster including Dublin, and the third combines every county in Connaught and Ulster.

The Mahon Tribunal spent 15 years, and over €250m, investigating corruption in local government, and it delivered a clear recommendation that regional authorities should be directly elected.

The Tribunal stated:

“3.23: Overall, the Tribunal is concerned  that the importance of the role played by the regional authorities in the planning process is not adequately reflected in the manner in which their members are appointed and that this has adverse implications both for their accountability and for the transparency of their decision making processes. The Tribunal is also concerned that the regional authorities are relatively invisible players from a public perspective and believes that their activities may not be subject to the intensity of public scrutiny which their powers would appear to warrant.”

Why does this matter?

The Government has decided to ignore that advice, and instead it has set up a mechanism whereby two councillors from each local authority will be appointed onto each new regional assembly. With Fine Gael likely to be the largest party across the country, it is hard to see how it will not be able to fill one of those two seats in each council area. If current polling trends continue, the country’s main party could end up with 50 per cent of representation, despite getting only 30 per cent of the national vote. Under any dictionary definition, such an outcome would surely be described as a gerrymandering of the system.

So, why does this matter? New regional authorities will have a critical role in planning the spatial and economic development of our country. Failure to get such planning right was one of the main contributory factors in our economic crisis and has added real cost to the provision of services for our people.

The new authorities will also provide an oversight of local authorities and of the distribution and administration of European funding. How are we going to get proper transparency and accountability when the dominant party in any future government will likely have control over this critical democratic “watchdog” role.

A further failing in the proposed regional structures is the overblown areas they cover. The previous government had completed an extensive analysis into the most appropriate regional structures, just prior to the last election. The preferred breakdown was to designate five authorities covering the Midlands/North East, the South West, the South East, Connaught/Donegal and Dublin.

Housing will be a critical issue for successive governments

The CSO expects that some 400,000 additional people are going to be living in the greater Dublin area within the next 16 years. Housing is going to be a critical issue for successive governments, and whether we see development in the cities, or more one-off housing in rural areas, without all the necessary transport links and social services, is one of the most critical political issues facing our country.

In the eastern regional authority that the Government is proposing, councillors from the four Dublin local authorities will be in the minority, making the ongoing spread of the city into the rest of Leinster all the more likely. In the south east, it is hard to see how Waterford will be able to prosper if it is not seen as the capital of a south eastern hinterland. It is also hard to see how we will get the development of the other urban centres in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo in the structures the Government has drawn up.

If the Government insists on not having direct elections to those regional authorities, there are two ways they could make them more democratic. They could either increase the number of councillors being appointed from each council, or else organise a single election process involving all councillors in the region in a unified selection process.

It is not too late for the Government to change their approach. Failure to do would leave us with the bad planning that has blighted our country in the last 30 years. We’re still waiting for the democratic revolution we were promised three years ago.

Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party. You can follow him on Twitter at @EamonRyan.

Read: Did Phil Hogan really gerrymander the local election boundaries?

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About the author:

Eamon Ryan  / TD and leader of the Green Party

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