Local. Irish. Politics
Deadwood in the political forest
Account of covering local council meetings
Local. Irish. Politics
Local Irish Politics. Sounds as appealing as myxomatosis rabbit-ridden stew for dinner. Potholes, Tidy Towns committees, town-centre parking and for a planning-paranoid society development levy’s and social-affordable housing.
When I stood in the cream, paint flaking walled chamber to cover a September 2007 local council meeting – for the first time for a local paper - I was keenly curious as to what might unfold in the following two hours. Perhaps it was the harp over the mantelpiece, or the framed declaration of independence beside an array of framed photographs of previous councils.
As the Councillors filed in I was surprised to recognise some of the faces from photographs dating back to the seventies. From six only one wasn’t, a man in his early-thirties. The mood was jovial. One councillor identified me as a new journo and welcomed me. When the town-clerk acting as chairman got the ball rolling the agenda items were evidently unchallenging. Between the few wry comments a sense of duty was palpable; new town-centre plan, trouble with enforcement of parking misdemeanours, back-slapping for the concerted effort of flower-bed maintenance.
An hour and a quarter in, the most important topic concerned rezoning of strategically important land within a town centre in a new draft of the county development plan. The town-clerk, acting as chairman, made the situation and available options to Councillors transparently clear through the use of short, tersely spoken sentences. As transparent, as discussion on the motion progressed, was a lack of understanding of the planning process on behalf of the Councillors, culminating in one Councillor blurting: ‘so what are we voting on?’ when the time came to cast their ballot.
Toward the meeting’s end, an elegantly dressed Councillor proposed a motion. Turning in her seat she informed us with notebooks that ‘this is strictly not for the Press’. One of the other reporters present whispered that this was a common occurrence, every month in fact.
So, not only did some Councillors not have a grasp, however rudimentary, of the planning system, others misunderstood rights of the press. Incidentally, telling journalists that something was off-limits was a trademark of hers, as every consecutive meeting proved.
I rushed to another meeting that had commenced a half-hour ago. A Labour Councillor had just begun to discuss metal trace metal levels in the town’s water supply. According to him the situation hadn’t altered for over eight years. I scribbled furiously. This was surely big news, but apparently not.
‘_, we’re all well aware of the situation and are doing our utmost to remedy the situation,’ the chairman stated.
What? No debate, points of view, reasons as to why the problem has existed for so long.
Local Irish politics is diseased, desperately ill from overexposure to apathy, negligence and poor calibre. Apathy: Few care what happens at these meetings. Negligence: We, as citizens, are negligent in our duty to ensure elected representatives are undertaking their job. Poor calibre: Quite plainly, those elected aren’t sufficiently educated, informed or broadminded enough to give any credence to spending recreational time in a town hall; demonstrated by the very fact that a local journalist, at least two decades younger than the Councillors concerned, understood proposed motions more fully than those that voted.
It is the rotten roots of a dying plant. The lack of foresight, management and efficient use of resources of Central Government, which is now only being fed to the public consciousness, is evident town-halls and council chambers across the country, if several months experience of one Cork constituency constituting three separate local Councils is anything to go by.