Theresa Reidy: 'To solve the problems in rural Ireland, we have to decentralise our political power'
It was revealed last week that Greater Dublin is gobbling up a disproportionate share of national economic prosperity and job growth. The news was greeted with some dismay but little surprise. Dubliners have watched their region choke over the past 18 months and those in other regions have watched as the recovery has been painfully slow. Imbalances in the distribution of economic growth within countries are quite typical across advanced industrial economies. Much depends on which sectors have long-standing dominance and which industries recover first after any recessions.
The destiny of rural regions will frequently be contingent upon demand in sectors like agriculture and tourism, areas not renowned as major wealth generators. Competition for inward investment is almost always among highly networked global cities, which is why we often hear that Dublin is competing with Helsinki, Frankfurt and Copenhagen, all cities of considerable scale; and that our smaller regional cities don't have a chance.
Much of this is all true. Competition is global. Investment favours scale. And across the world, urbanisation is gaining pace. What makes Ireland different is the scale of the skewed growth and the weary acceptance of its inevitability.
It is not global competition that initiated the movement east, it has always been thus. Ireland has one of the most centralised states in Europe. Every important decision is made by the central government in Dublin. Regions don't exist in any meaningful political way, and Irish local government is the weakest in the EU. Political structures are deeply connected to the way we plan and develop our State and ours are lopsided. This matters, as it exaggerates regional imbalance.
When political and economic problems are highlighted, the default is for commentators to focus on our peculiar electoral system or to highlight the constituency work carried out by TDs, but the elephant in the room is the concentration of power in central government.
We are a complete anomaly. Research published as part of a European Commission report ranked Ireland last of 39 European countries for local autonomy. Ireland sat alongside Moldova, Georgia and Malta at the bottom of the scale. On every dimension, powers, finances, services, our local authorities have less control than all our near EU neighbours.
What does this mean in practice?
For one of the smallest and least densely populated countries in Europe, we have some of the largest populations living within each local authority area. On average, there are more than 140,000 people living in each local authority area. The Irish figure compares to Belgium which has an average of 18,000 citizens in its lowest-level government area, Finland has 15,500, Denmark has 55,000 and the Netherlands has 37,000 citizens per area. There are also wide variations within countries and this is true for Ireland as well.
Ireland also has some of the highest ratios of citizens to councillors, with one councillor for every 5,000+ citizens on average. This compares to one councillor per 800 citizens in Belgium, one per 1,200 in Denmark, one for every 410 citizens in Finland and one for every 1,700 in the Netherlands.
Like most of these countries, Irish councillors work part-time and receive a modest payment for their services.
Commonly across other European countries, local authorities manage health and education services. For example, this means that schools and medical facilities are built by local government and teachers and doctors are hired locally. It all makes sense if you stand back and think that local authorities decide where the housing growth will be, and are therefore best positioned to plan the service needs of communities. Policing is another area where local authorities play a key role in many other European countries.
Undoubtedly, the poor performance of local government in Ireland over the decades bears much responsibility for the disinclination to allocate it meaningful functions. In fact, it has been stripped of most of the health and education roles that it did have. Years of planning corruption, poor service delivery, nepotism and waste of public money are hard to ignore.
But in Ireland our solution has always been to strip local government of its roles, rarely do we look to ways of addressing failures at local level. The distrust of local government runs deep. Some elite voices, annoyed about the nomination of presidential candidates recently, as a first response suggested taking the power to nominate candidates away from local authorities.
Power centralisation has many deep consequences. Decisions are taken at national level by those with little sympathy or interest in empowering local communities. Local knowledge and local priorities get less traction and it takes longer for problems which arise to filter through layers of administration. It is bad practice and no other EU state allocates such an overbearing role to central government. We are truly aberrant.
Although there were some positive changes in the 2014 local government reforms, the report from the European Commission mentioned above makes it clear that overall the reform package contributed to further centralisation. Lopsided development is inevitable.
Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork.