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10 June 1999 Edition

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Electoral victories beckon

Speaking at the party's final press conference prior to this week's local government and EU elections, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams called on people to change the face of electoral politics on the island by voting Sinn Féin number 1 on 10 June in the Six Counties and 11 June in the 26 Counties.

Adams said the elections see Sinn Féin poised to make substantial electoral gains throughout the island.

``A vote for Sinn Féin is a vote for a radical, republican labour alternative to those parties steeped in scandal, corruption and double-dealing.

``Sinn Féin's vision is to see the wealth which is currently being created, shared. We want to promote positive neutrality and we want to develop all-Ireland economic policies. We want agricultural policy to change so that its priority is to keep the maximum number of farmers on the land. We want our fishing industry protected and not sold out. We want a lasting peace and Irish unity and independence.''

Adams was joined at the press conference by Dublin EU candidate Seán Crowe, who said that it was difficult to make predictions on his chances of taking a Euro seat and that it would very much depend on transfers. Traditionally Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties had not had much success in gaining large amounts of transfers from other parties but this pattern had begun to change at the last election.

Predicting significant advances for the party, Adams said: ``Travelling the length and breadth of the country in recent weeks, it is clear that Sinn Féin's message has been receiving an increasingly receptive audience, something that will be reflected at the polls later this week. I am confident that following these elections we will have substantially increased republican representation on local councils throughout the 26 Counties and have a Sinn Féin voice in the EU Parliament.''


Major changes in local government?

You wouldn't have thought it, but there is a referendum on Friday to change the constitutional position of the councils. The change gives constitutional recognition to the role of local councils to ``provide a forum for the democratic representation of local communities, in exercising local level powers and functions.'' Well that's something new.

This An Phoblacht reporter asked a spokesperson for the commission which drew up the constitutional referendum where this might leave government powers to close down councils, when and if the councillors got out of hand. Could the government still close a council down and hand local government over to the Manager to carry on without them, as has happened in the past, over service charges?

The spokesperson for the commission thought it was an interesting question: the commission didn't have a definitive view on the matter: it would have to be decided by the courts.

The referendum, if passed, will also oblige the government of the day to hold council elections every five years, instead of postponing them at the hint of government unpopularity. The last county council elections here were in 1991.

Does all this mean that democracy is on its way with democratic representation of communities in local government? ``Well, the referendum doesn't go very far'' says Caoimhghín O'Caoláin, ``but it is a start.''

Caoimhghín is one of the TDs who have been involved in the Oireachtas committee on the reform of local government. Their report is now before Minister Noel Dempsey with a view to legislation, promised for after these elections, of course.

Meanwhile, the implementation of the Task Force report, drawn up within the Department of the Environment, has begun. One of the first steps of the new councils will be to set up their new Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs), which are to involve representation from selected community groups in local government.

The SPCs

According to the size of the council, there are to be between three and five SPCs, ideally of some 12 members each, drawn from council officials, councillors themselves and community group representation. Methods of selection for these community reps are flexible. It's up to each council. The chairperson will be paid. And this makes a change because the only pay councillors have got to date, aside from expenses, is the scrappage scheme, which pays councillors handsomely to go away.

That of course ignores the conferences, where it is by no means unusual to have eight or nine councillors from just one council, all checking into conferences under the guise of representing different committees, stuck in under other committees and claiming expenses for the weekend, which on a one weekend on - one off basis, means an extra £10,000 per councillor.

But on the new SPCs, we're talking about three or four community groups on just one body of 9 to 12 people. Donal Connolly, Waterford County Manager, suggests in the guidelines for SPCs drawn up in March 1998, ``one SPC might deal with all of Housing and Social Policy, Cultural and Heritage, Community Affairs including Local Development and Corporate Affairs.'' It's hardly a model for devolution of power, or community involvement in consultation or decision making.

The EU was very critical of the Task Force proposals. They didn't go far enough. Judged by other EU country standards they certainly don't.

Comparison with EU

In Ireland, councillors have authority over such issues as dog licences, but when it comes to such categories as agriculture, electricity, commerce, tourism, police, justice, child care, primary and adult education, hospitals, family welfare services, which are controlled in almost all other EU countries by local authorities, Ireland's councillors don't get a look in.

Local authority spending in, for example Denmark, a country of similar size and population, represents two thirds of public expenditure. In Ireland it represents 16%.

Starved of funds

`He who pays the piper calls the tune.' Local councils in Ireland don't call any tune because they are starved of funds. Instead quangos and semi-state companies, enormous financial concerns have mushroomed, institutions which have apparently uncontrolled power to `develop' whole sections of the country without recourse to democratic institutions. For example, the Dublin Docks Development Authority wants to undertake the Spencer Dock Scheme of £1.2 billion, which is equal to the annual capital expenditure of all the local authorities put together. Health Boards, development bodies like ADM partnerships, LEADER programmes, and so on, are all mushrooming in the dark and dwarf the powers of local government.

The Task Force report recommends that local councillors involve themselves in the ADM partnerships, which usually are staffed by government appointees. Who is accountable to whom? Where is democratically based power?

Powers of Local Authorities

So what powers do councils have? Councillors are supposed to concern themselves with the major decisions of policy - the annual budget, the development plan (for housing, business and services), the waste management plan, whereas the manager is supposed to implement the policy and handle the day-to-day management. The councillors have ultimate power over planning.

Jackie Crowe, Sinn Féin councillor on Castleblaney UDC, quotes another councillor as saying: ``The manager treats the councillors like mushies: feed them plenty of dung, keep them in the dark, and they'll come on nicely.''

Yet councillors do have powers over their managers, as Liam McGirl showed when, at his proposal, the Leitrim County Council used a Section 30 motion to overturn the manager's decision to allow a phone mast go up in Ballinamore.

On the books, councillors have considerable power over their managers. ``They can require the manager to inform the council before performing any specific executive function; to submit plans for particular works; prohibit the undertaking of new works; oversee the proposals for land disposal; require that a particular act, matter or thing be done by the manager; undertake the preparation of the estimates and ultimately suspend or sack the manager.'' Considerable powers in theory.

In practice, it doesn't work like that, because as independent councillors will tell you, the councils are run by a cosy cartel of councillors from the largest parties, which are big enough to control between them decisions and appointments on the main committees. They pass the parcel between them. Small parties don't get a look in.

And it suits these councillors to play clientelist politics, looking after individual needs of individual constituents, to maintain influence and election, and to steer well clear of issues, and the needs of the community - like hospitals, education, local development, waste management, masts, and above all housing.

Council managers need to be worried, especially after George Redmond. But will things change?

Well it depends on who gets elected on Friday.

Are Fianna Fail playing the long game?


Even if Fianna Fáil does belatedly launch the National Development Plan, full of juicy spending projects, next week, it will still have plenty of steam left in it for another snap election campaign
Everyone has something at stake in next week's European Parliament and local government elections in the 26 Counties. Could it be the case though, that Fianna Fáil has more riding on the poll than the other parties? One conspiracy theory that holds water is that any sort of a decent showing for the Soldiers of Destiny could prompt Bertie Ahern to prepare the troops for an autumn Leinster House poll.

Last week's MRBI poll figures will have concentrated minds at their Mount Street headquarters. Here was a party in trouble. Here was a party leader with explaining still to do for `Joe Public' on just how did the did the £30,000 cheque to cash signed by him end up in Charlie Haughey's bank account. Add to this the upcoming tribunal forays into the affairs of Tom Gilmartin and the ongoing tooing and froing on just how much money Ray Burke got from whom and when.

This should have been an opinion poll that showed Fianna Fáil reeling and Bertie Ahern's popularity falling. Instead, it registered the opposite. Ahern's popularity was rising again and Fianna Fáil would not only hold the seven Euro seats they won in 1994 but could plausibly add an eighth seat.

Also high on the good news agenda for Fianna Fáil is the 15% plus increase in Exchequer returns for 1999. The coffers are swelling and this is even before you count in the money that will be raised from the sale of Telecom and Cablelink (see page 6 for the EU implications). Fianna Fáil could come to the polls with a serious platform of spending promises.

What makes this theory seem all the more plausible is the failure of Fianna Fáil to publish their National Development Plan. This plan contains the programme for distributing the EU structural and cohesion funds as well as other Dublin government capital investment projects.

It will amount to billions of punts of spending, spread liberally around the state. There will be just the right amount of flagship projects to catch the public interest. There will be bypasses and information superhighways for every backwater and byroad. It would make, if you think about it long enough, a very good Leinster House election manifesto!

What other explanation is there for it not being a more public part of the Fianna Fáil EU election campaign to date? Even if they do belatedly launch the development plan next week, it will still have plenty of steam left in it for another snap election campaign.

The fact that the development plan should have received a more public airing and not been just the spoils of central government is neither here nor there. Certainly the plan should have been produced by local communities and processed through local government structures in a bottom-up participatory democracy sort of way. But none of this matters when you have an election to win and five more years of government, possibly with Ruairi Quinn as Tanaiste.

The other reasoning behind calling a general election is that it is one way for Fianna Fáil to stop the drip feed of scandal about the Haughey days seeping into the media. An endorsement at the polls for Ahern can put him in the clear so that no matter what happens at the Moriarty and Flood tribunals he will still be above the Dublin Castle deliberations.

Ahern is already developing the kind of political Teflon shown to date only by Bill Clinton. The only fly in the ointment is what to do with the Progressive Democrats. Standing idly by seems to be the right prescription and one that suits Fianna Fail just fine.

The PDs have already spurned participation in the Euro poll. Was it only five years ago that they were proclaiming themselves to be ``simply the best''? A bad performance in the locals could sound the final death knell for Harney. Her Leinster House seat is also under threat.

So it seems that it will be a long summer for Ahern. The stakes are high but the payoff is high too. If he comes back with an increased Fianna Fáil representation at Leinster House, better still for Ahern. He will be unassailable as party leader for the long-term. He will also have broken the Haughey Hoodoo.

The sad thing is that this also amounts to fiddling while Rome burns. If Ahern has time on his hands to play politics, he should be standing up to Trimble and the British government. The worst case scenario is that petty 26-County politics will supercede the ailing peace process. We deserve better Bertie. It's up to you to decide how you should really be remembered.

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