3 February 2005 Edition
Protests as rubbish piles up in Cork City - SF shakes up City Hall
BY Paul O'Connor
Spare a thought for the unfortunate "city fathers" of Cork, whose lives are being made a misery by unruly Shinners both inside and outside the council chamber.
Cork City Council used to be a cosy set-up. Councillors' main business was to make long-winded speeches congratulating themselves and the City Manager on what a great job they were all doing. The pact between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party to share out committee seats and pass the estimates meant political debate was virtually non-existent. However, in the horrified words of one Fine Gael councillor, since Sinn Féin doubled its representation on the council last June, "politics has entered City Hall".
Sinn Féin Councillors Jonathan O'Brien and Annette Spillane are determined to force the council to sit up and take notice of the impact its policies are having on communities around Cork. And they have resisted the efforts of the establishment parties to exclude or silence them. Last November, the council artificially restructured the estimates committee, which helps prepare the city's budget, to exclude Sinn Féin. In response, the party's councillors forced the next meeting of the council to adjourn by refusing to take their seats or stop speaking until the issue was dealt with. Around 40 supporters in the public gallery held up placards and unfurled a banner to protest against this attempt to deny Sinn Féin's electoral mandate.
The protest dominated the local media in Cork for a week. Callers to local radio shows praised Sinn Féin as the only party to challenge the closed shop in City Hall. When councillors from the establishment parties went on air to denounce Sinn Féin, they succeeded only in exposing their own arrogance and conceit.
This week saw Sinn Féin once again in the news. The introduction of a "pay by use" system of refuse collection in the city in January has had the predictable consequence of a massive increase in illegal dumping. What was not predicted was the mismanagement of the system itself. With tags being ripped off bins, and delays in issuing wheelie bins and stickers even to those who have paid their service charges, the system is a shambles.
The result is an unprecedented build-up of rubbish on streets, roads and open spaces around the city. Bags of rubbish are piled chest high in streets near the city centre, torn open by scavenging dogs and attracting rats. In the year Cork is Europe's Capital of Culture, parts of the city are taking on the appearance of a Third World slum.
Sinn Féin — the only party in City Hall to consistently oppose service charges — is demanding the council remove the rubbish building up on the streets immediately. On Monday, councillors Jonathan O'Brien and Annette Spillane, along with a Green Party and a Socialist councillor, occupied the City Manager's office in protest at his refusal to take action.
The protest lasted from half nine in the morning to five o'clock on Monday afternoon, when the councillors' left to attend that day's council meeting. "We felt that an action like this was the only way of getting our message across," says Jonathan O'Brien. "During the debate on the estimates I made the point that the system of refuse charges would lead to an increase in illegal dumping. This has duly happened, and while Sinn Féin is totally opposed to illegal dumping, the situation needs to be dealt with. The council has the manpower to go around putting labels saying "this bag is dumped illegally" on sacks of rubbish lying around our streets, but apparently not to collect them. Mismanagement has made the situation even worse. Even people who have paid the charges find their bins are not collected. The council's persistence in following a failed policy is now posing a real threat to the health and safety of the people of the city."
On the wider issue of the party's tactics in the council, he commented: "We don't aim at being disruptive for the sake of it. But when all other options run out, we have to make sure our voice, and the voices of the people we represent, are heard. The council chamber is just one more front in our republican struggle. The council is often arrogant, bureaucratic and out of touch. We're not here to accept this institution on its own terms, to be assimilated to it. We are here to challenge it and to deliver change."
Sinn Féin's tactics have ruffled feathers among the establishment parties, with one Labour councillor squawking that the occupation of the city manager's office was "outrageous". But they'd better get used to it. Because Sinn Féin in Cork is determined to open up the closed shop that is City Hall and let in some air.