Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

The Seanad and local government reform – a proposal….

Recent events in the Seanad have shown that the abolition of this body might not be the forgone conclusion that many think.  One of the main questions people have, however, is how can the Seanad actually be reformed.  What can be done to make it relevant?

Sometime ago I made quite a radical proposal for what I believe would combine an enormous shake up of both Irish politics and the Seanad.  Abolishing it is the easy option, using it as a vehicle for real political change is a much greater challenge.  Given the dramatic effect this proposal would have in Irish politics I don’t expect it to be enacted but perhaps it might give some food for thought. The Seanad is made up of panels, with its main body being elected by County Councillors; it is through this that I believe reform should happen.  Local government reform is the key to a stronger political system I my view and the Seanad is tied into this.

The problems can be summarised as follows:

• One of the main problems within the Irish system is that we do not have a properly functioning local government system.
• There is a lack of trust on the part of national government when it comes to delegating responsibility to councils
• There is a lack of responsibility among local councils and a lack of accountability.
• The number of councils for such a small population is far too expensive.
• There is a lack of co-ordinated planning and economies of scale
• Regional Authorities have no function in the public mind
• TD’s are seen as more powerful than a Council and therefore approached.
Addressing this problem is not easy however it can be done in a number of steps.
Step 1 – Councillors elected to Regional Authorities
I propose that local government be organised on a regional basis instead of a County basis. This will mean that each county will have much fewer councillors. However the representatives will continue to meet on a committee basis. So for example if all of County Longford had only 8 Councillors, they would meet as a Longford Committee, however they would be elected members of the Regional assembly. This would encourage councillors to work across party lines at county level to ensure that their area was represented effectively. The Councillors would still have a county profile but would be part of something much bigger. The size of regions and their geographic make up can be discussed later.
Regional Assemblies and Authorities could then implement far more effective and standard plans across a region. Getting elected would be no small feat and this in itself can sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of quality representation.  This is necessary to convince central government that control of certain funds and policies can be devolved to the regions. The elected representatives in each region would in turn meet and elect a Chairperson. Similar to National level politics this Chairperson would need to select a cabinet from the other members ensuring that there is political accountability in each region for policies and decisions are not left in the hands of unelected officials only.  The people holding these posts would have a particularly onerous job, in fact a full time job and I will explain how this is funded in a moment.

The system also lays out a clear career path for councillors that is far more attractive for ambitious and able councillors apart from needing to run for TD. The Regional Assembly will also automatically include Members of the European Parliament. The focus will be to tie in the work and understanding of the Assembly and the directly elected representatives with that of Europe to address the so called democratic deficit that exists.
Most importantly, TDs now have separate career paths. A TD while obviously more important that a local councillor, has a different role. The TD is no longer a more important figure than the council itself. This removes the image in the public eye of the TD being able to influence council. Rather, it ensures that TD’s and the public alike will be more inclined to refer local issues to a councillor who has the contacts and network at Regional Assembly level to deal with the issue.  After all, the TD continues to represent a constituency that is smaller than the region, therefore it is the councillor who has the contacts at regional level to ensure roads, waters services etc are being delivered.  The TD’s would clearly be concerned with Dáil matters only.

Step 2 – Giving regions a national forum

The cabinet, or executive, of each of the regional assemblies will, as I have said, have an onerous job that requires full commitment.  Therefore, rather than them electing a Seanad, each of these mini-cabinets/executives members should form the majority of members of a new Senate. The rest of the Senate should be made up of members elected from experts in specific disciplines, Economics, Education, Agriculture, Private Enterprise etc.
This increases the importance of local elections and ensures that for parties there is a real need to get high quality candidates who can win and progress as otherwise the Senate could prove difficult to navigate for a government and this is the kind of teeth that a new Senate needs. Not unlike what occurs in theUnited States. By doing this we overcome the issue of the regional executives being full time positions as without any extra cost the members will indeed be paid as Senators.  Yes it involves more work but that is par for the course these days. One final problem then exists. The Dail selects the Taoiseach and Cabinet, if the Minister for local government is part of this then it may still cause problems to be referred to a TD in the hope that they can influence the Minister with Authority. It could also create conflict between a Minister and the Authorities themselves. Therefore the executives must elect one Member who will in turn have a seat at Cabinet as Minister for Local Government (getting down to small details, the person may need to have their role on their regional council filled by co-option and be automatically re-elected to the regional authority as a Ceann Comhairle is to the Dail, in recognition of the work they will need to undertake at Cabinet). This is a new departure in politics but could give an interesting injection of debate and views right to the heart of government. It also lays out a specific, real and powerful career path for local government that is separate to that of TDs.  It should be noted however, that the member elected does not have a vote in the Dail and can only be Minister for Local Government and cannot be moved from this post. It may also encourage more consensus should a member be linked to an opposition party yet sit at cabinet

This idea is an effort to combine the local, national and EU levels of politics into a system that is fully integrated.  Political Parties would need to change their approach to adapt to such a system, Local government and the Seanad would now be on a par in many ways with the Dail and both would need to be able to work together.  Therefore a balance is struck and the parties need to put a real effort into finding people capable of delivering because influence would be needed both at local and national level.  Control of both houses would be essential.  The work of the Seanad would change, becoming more concerned with EU matters and regional policy but that would be no bad thing in my opinion.

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One thought on “The Seanad and local government reform – a proposal….

  1. This is a fresh and radical way to kill two birds with one non-fatal stone. I have been thinking that the anachronism that is Seanad (whose future many are now considering rather than the much more relevant reform of Local Government, proposals for which were due to have been discussed in Cabinet yesterday) needs a defined regional element and that this level needed strengthening in any event in order to ensure strategic planning etc.. The nominated locally-elected minister for Local Government would do wonders for the sector (though I will not be holding my breath on this). The linkages with EU affairs are also badly needed.

    I’m just not sure of the maths: the current 883 (part-time) councillors equates to one for every 5,000 citizens (already a higher ratio than in most European states – though admittedly there are huge variations from county to city) so unduly slashing representation across the board would not be recommended. Let’s imagine that Longford is restricted to those 8 councillors (from current 21): on a very rough pro-rata basis that would total 333 nationwide. That’s surely far too many to allow for effective regional structures – even if the current 8 Regional Authorities were to be maintained. Those who accede to this level should be put to proper use not relegated to the sidelines while an elite core presses ahead.

    Why not just maintain the County/City Councils, purely as direct service providers, as they are to all intents and purposes, but call their collective membership ”Local Authority Committees” (and sub-committees) as you’ve outlined with these feeding policy input into proper regional bodies?

    A parallel election of membership to Regional Executive structures operating at a more strategic level should also take place. This would be separate to the Local Authority election: no dual mandate – candidates would need to choose which stream they’d contest but successful regional representatives would become de facto Local Authority Committee members (as with the MEPs at the regional level). Such a system would open a career path for, perhaps 60 of the supposedly best/brightest and most responsible/visionary/ambitious of local politicians and offer them a schooling in thinking beyond-the-local for a few years before they inevitably try for a Dail seat whose mandate would, in turn, be strictly national.

    Half of these Executive members could have access to a Seanad seat (with the other 30 seats being made up of panels elected by a more democratic means than presently). These would rotate after 2.5 years allowing all to be termed ‘Regional Senators’. Logistically, a representative’s period in the Seanad might alternate with the ex officio period on the Local Authority committee as mentioned above (secondment arrangements applying while he/she serves in the Seanad).

    Just to take the debate a step further than Johnny has, I’d envisage 4 or 5 Regional Executives would be formed. These would be based as much as possible on functional areas (including major urban hinterlands), existing linkages and forming critical mass of population of at least 600,000. Ideally I’d redraw (usually purely random) Local Authority boundaries but as this is hardly a runner I’d suggest the design of the Regional Executive areas should not be slavishly determined by these existing lines which are likely to hinder proper strategic functioning. Voters would elect membership of their designated region based on the location of their specific Electoral District (with candidates needing to be resident within that region). By agreement, each Local Authority would be guaranteed a minimum of 1 member for each Regional Executive it was associated with in order to provide for local representation (and public profile). Allowing for geographical size, this could give us something like Connacht-Donegal (11 members); Midlands-East (including Athlone) (10); Metropolitan Dublin (14); South-East (12); South-West/Mid-West (13).

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