John Dolan: Micheál should devolve power to regions in Covid fight

Forget national lockdowns, leave the 31 local authorities to make that call locally, says Echo columnist
John Dolan: Micheál should devolve power to regions in Covid fight
DELEGATE: Taoiseach Micheál Martin has enough on his plate and should hand more power to the city and county managers, says John Dolan

IT was an American Democrat with Cork roots who became most associated with the phrase: “All politics is local.”

Tip O’Neill, whose paternal grandparents were from Mallow, enjoyed a hugely successful career based on that mantra, spending a decade as Speaker of the American House of Representatives.

Despite such a lofty role, as the third most powerful politician in a country of 300 million people, O’Neill never forgot that northern Boston was his base.

He reigned supreme in that backwater, winning 17 elections in 34 years and never coming close to being toppled.

Clearly, being associated with the phrase “all politics is local” can be a good career move.

Most democratic countries have a system of local and national governance working in tandem, but there are myriad differences in how they are administered.

Ireland’s is fairly typical: Local councillors, national TDs, and the more recent addition of MEPs.

However, the amount of power allocated to councillors and their executive, such as City Managers, varies widely from country to country.

Some national governments trust their local authorities with more power and money; others jealously hoard the bulk of it for themselves. Guess where Ireland is on this scale?

You can get some indication of the answer by comparing the voter turn-out in this year’s General Election — 63% — and the turn-out for last year’s local elections — less than 50%.

To the typical voter, politics is more national than local.

In fact, Ireland has one of the biggest disparities in terms of the power split between local and national government.

Theresa Reidy.a UCC political scientist, has analysed this issue in depth and concluded: “Ireland is one of the most centralised states in Europe. Power is concentrated in the hands of central government,

“In contrast to almost all other European states, there has never been a meaningful tier of regional government in Ireland and local government remains woefully weak.

“Yet, the extent of this political centralisation is rarely acknowledged or discussed as a serious political problem, and the consequences receive little public treatment.”

Dr Reidy, in a 2018 report, pointed out that local government has been stripped of responsibility for the delivery of services in health, education and infrastructure, offering the HSE and Irish Water as examples of this drive to centralise.

Various reports down the years have argued for substantial devolution of powers to local government — but there is a problem: For power to be devolved to local authorities, the central government has to surrender it; a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Dr Reidy also pointed to “some research suggesting there is deep hostility to devolution stemming from a distrust of local councils and a centralising mentality”.

This lopsided imbalance is emphasised by the fact more than 95% of Irish tax revenues are raised by central government, which then allocates 93% of that take.

Even the property tax, intended as a local toll, is largely controlled by the politicians up above in Dublin. Money is power, after all, huh?

Because we are so used to this discrepancy, we don’t realise that many other countries have far more effective systems of local governance. Britain has elected city mayors with real powers. We saw how Donald Trump was helpless to force various states to adopt his deny-and-defy policy on Covid.

Smaller EU states like Finland, Austria and Denmark all have far more powerful local authorites

Of course, in a European context, everyone looks to Germany — and there, we find local government power enshrined in law. Its local authorities have their own ministerial governments and legislatures, and primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order; jurisdiction over their own finances, taxes, and administration; and supreme authority in education and other cultural activities.

Leaving Angela Merkel with her eye on the big picture...

In Ireland, councillors are often left frustrated, tinkering with hyper-local issues such as dog mess on footpaths, while the real power is swung from Dublin. Similarly, council administrators spend much of their time trying to source and allocate resources.

The city events centre provides a telling example here. Why is Simon Coveney just about the only politician associated with this on-off project? Has he not had better things to do in a national context in recent years, such as Brexit and Covid, and in his roles as deputy Fine Gael leader and Foreign Minister?

Sure, there are votes to be gained in the project — and to be lost if it never materialises — but the event centre is an example of a local project for local people that should be driven by councillors and local officials.

Mr Coveney may retort that all politics is local and that he is representing his South Central constituents, but, to me, this is an example of why we need to devolve more power and money to local government.

The voters are not blame-free either. They stood and watched meekly while our town councils were hurled onto a bonfire after the last crash, then dutifully voted to keep in place that uniquely pointless national institution, the Senate.

Transferring power from national to local government will not be done overnight, and requires the acquiescence of a Taoiseach and their ministers.

Perhaps this could be Micheál Martin’s grand legacy... after all, few people in the country must be poor miffed with national (and international!) politicians right now than the Cork Taoiseach!

And there are positives to devolving power to the regions. The Government would have more time to devote to national issues that require urgent attention, such as the economy, health and housing, and would not be blamed for every micro-thing that goes wrong.

Imagine if, at a stroke, Micheál could put much of the powers to fight Covid into the hands of city and county managers in councils across the country; to the people who know their own backyard the best.

Sure, he and his Cabinet would retain a role in advising these 31 people, but contentious issues such as whether to have a local lockdown could be decided upon in the relevant areas, by people who have all the data to hand.

Many, including me, believe the national lockdown was the right thing to do in March. Going forward, however, we will have to learn to live with this virus for some time, and handing city managers the power and tools to do it strikes me as the best way forward.

City managers, with a hyper-local view, could decided to close down classrooms, school, housing estates, town centres, whatever it takes, and would surely be far more effective in battling Covid than the blunt instrument of national government.

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