Thursday 22 August 2019

Six things we have learned so far on these local election hustings

Isolation: Transport Minister Shane Ross announced more rural buses - but rural dwellers want more services. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Isolation: Transport Minister Shane Ross announced more rural buses - but rural dwellers want more services. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

Driving through the lush Irish landscape on those golden May evenings earlier this week, it was easy to be lulled into the false view that we have few, if any, problems.

Yet the wide variety of roadside election posters reminded us that we are now deeply in election mode. And this day next week the counting to fill those 949 council seats will be in full swing and the 2,000 or so candidates will know their fate.

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The basic model of local democracy has been with us since 1898 - almost a quarter of a century before the foundation of the modern Irish State.

The councils are undoubtedly the poor relations in our democracy in this most centralised of countries. But that said, councils are also important for very many reasons and these elections tell us a lot about ourselves, how we order our affairs and relate to one another. Having spent a week scooting around the highways and byways watching closely the local canvass in rural areas, this writer can offer the following six observations in all humility.

1. Matters local are king

Sure the big national themes impinge on the public mood. But on the doors, people want to know about the local issues which remain to be tackled.

What about that long-promised playground? Where is the water upgrade? Do you see the state of that road surface below? The people also want to know just who the candidates are. Canny candidates never travel alone. Ones destined to succeed often go into an area with a local person who is well got and can make personal introductions.

2. Big picture national issues come through a local prism

Think broadband and beef. Last week, the Taoiseach launched the €3bn National Broadband Plan. It is a huge issue everywhere you go in rural parts. People want it soon. The issue also poses problems for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, since castigating Fine Gael as "€3bn-spendthrifts" is also another way of telling rural supporters they will have to continue waiting.

Beef farmers are under fierce pressure and strongly resent the lack of extra supports. Other sectors, including grain, also feel battered.

The belated €50m gesture by former Fine Gael election strategist turned EU Commissioner Phil Hogan may ease the pressure. Drilling into survey details in recent weeks, we find farmers losing faith in Fine Gael. Will the promised total package of €100m, once matching Government finance is factored in, prove enough? We'll know this day week.

3. Rural loneliness is a big one for many people

In south Kilkenny, we learned that the continual loss of shops, pubs and other facilities galvanised the local community of Ballyhale into setting up its own not-for-profit community shop and café which has become a social hub.

Transport Minister Shane Ross made an announcement this week about rural buses. But while the bulk of people accept that drink-drive laws are necessary, they also believe they need much better public transport and more places to socialise near home.

4. Housing is as big a rural issue as it is in urban areas. But there is a difference in emphasis

In south Kildare we find that the rejection of planning for one-off homes, running at over 50pc according to one candidate, is enraging people. It can be argued that the rejections are an added threat to some small rural communities' continued existence.

This is also an issue in Connemara. But it is compounded by the cost of getting on site, even if that site is already bought or gifted. One candidate estimated that these costs in levies and professional fees can mount up to €20,000 before any block is laid.

5. Rural crime continues to pose a threat

Farming communities are weary of theft of plant, tools and farm equipment.

They are ready to fight back - and that is the worrying part with talk of shotguns at the ready. More active text alert areas and more community policing and Garda-councillor liaison are required.

6. There are a clatter of other things that are not the direct responsibility of a councillor

These issues vary from area to area. But a recurring theme is better home-help packages to help elderly people continue living independently in their own homes. Another is better education supports for families under stress where the child risks leaving school early without any qualification.

In such matters, good councillors can exert influence and raise a flag of concern where they know individuals concerned.

The list of six things we have learned from the local campaign so far is not intended to be comprehensive. We also note that thus far the local elections have been a slow-burner, not engendering huge interest. That will change over the coming five full campaign days.

The local elections often predict the following national elections. In 2009, they presaged the huge fall in store for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in the 2011 general.

In 2014, they foretold the hefty losses for Fine Gael and Labour. They also signalled the mini-revival of Fianna Fáil fortunes and the vote shares in 2014 were very close to those cast in the subsequent General Election in February 2016.

We can expect Friday's vote will also be a bellwether.

Irish Independent

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