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Opinion: Dail Reform Debate Highlights Need for Change at Local Level

The aftermath of this year’s General Election and the uncertainty of when, or indeed if, a government will be formed has dominated much of the media coverage. The elected politicians on the other hand are seemingly united on one issue, the Fianna Fail suggested and Fine Gael proposed idea of Dail Reform. The idea allows a seemingly high degree of partisanship, after all, anyone can get behind a vaguely progressive buzzword. What follows after the initial rhetoric is what matters.

    The issue of reform is something which needs to be addressed not only in the lower house of our parliament, but throughout our entire political system. The General Elections has caused many County and City Council seats to be vacated as elected members move on to Dail Eireann. Councillors must forfeit their County or City Council seat as it is prohibited to hold membership of a local authority while sitting in Leinster House. The vacancies affect the majority of the nations Local authorities with an estimated 48 seats in total freeing up in the aftermath of the General Election.

    Cork County Council alone has seen seven Councillors elected to Dail Eireann. Their replacements follow a similar trend that is not unique to Cork and representative of a serious countrywide issue. Fianna Fail’s Aindrias Moynihan’s seat has passed directly to his sister, Godnait, for Cork North West. First time Fianna Fail TD Kevin O’Keeffe’s seat also goes to his sister, Deirdre O’Brien. Independent TD Michael Collins’s vacant seat has also gone directly to his brother, Danny Collins. Collin’s striking similarities to the Healy-Rae’s seem to stem beyond shared ideas, Paddy caps and shared first names to familial appointments. Danny Healy-Rae’s daughter, Maura, replaces him on Kerry County Council for the Killarney Municipal District also.  

    The Co-Opting system is the method of choice throughout the Republic of Ireland to fill vacant Council seats in cases of death, resignation or disqualification, as is the case upon national election. In the event of a vacancy occurring the political party who originally nominated the outgoing member then holds the rights to nominate the succeeding member subject to Council approval. Following a General Election inevitably there are several vacancies and co-opting has the potential to run more smoothly as voting trade-offs can more likely be secured between nominees to ensure there own candidates approval.

    The Co-opting system is vastly different, perhaps even a polar opposite, to the by-election system used to fill vacant seats in Dail Eireann. The by-election process, while often disruptive and traditionally receiving a low voter turnout, is important in providing constituents with the opportunity to fill their vacant seat democratically. The co-opting system can allow political lineages to be created irrespective of constituents wishes or merit and does not represent the popular vote. This system can allow Councillors who were not themselves elected to serve well over the majority of a Councils term.

    Votes are cast as much, if not more, for individuals as they are for parties. In the case of a vacancy occurring it should be up to the constituents to fill it, not the outgoing Councillor. The system needs to change, neither Cork County Council nor Kerry County Council are unique in this practice. The practice too cannot be blamed on a handful of TDs or certain political parties or simply just independents. This issue crosses party lines and ensures that County and City Councils are represented democratically only from a party perspective and not from an individual one.

    The problem is fundamental and is not an easy one to rectify. Most crucially, the national interest in Local Elections is low. This saw 2014’s Local Elections produce the second lowest turnout in the history of the state at 51.6% down 6% on 2009. Holding Local by-elections is highly unlikely to be the viable solution. It would be unlikely to garner much public interest and a low turnout would be expected. However, it could play a vital role in a complete reforming of the Local Elections system, while not being the solution. Why should our local elections by conducted differently to our national elections?

    Local Elections could be moved to take place following a General Election. Once the dust of each General Election has settled the Local Elections could take place within 2-3 months. The seat vacancies created by the General Election could go unfilled until the Local Elections could take place. The key to this system would clearly be ensuring the gap between the General Elections and Local Elections at a minimum to ensure areas continue to be adequately represented. This practice could curb the recurrent issue of ‘parachuting’ in Irish Local politics and demand that candidates are elected on merit. More unpredictable situations such as cases of resignation or death a seat arguably warrant the use of co-opting. The alternative by-election is simply unfeasible. Vacancies caused by a General Election are vastly different, they are predictable and numerous. While the issues of organising another vote so soon after a General Election are both obvious and challenging, the timing makes the most sense. Inconvenience surely is preferable to a system where appointments are steeped in nepotism at worst and contrary to democracy at best. Public representatives should be chosen by the electorate, not decided upon by the existing Council.

    Dail Reform is undoubtedly important and is set to top the list of the more pertinent topics as a government forms. Dail Eireann needs to examine not only how it deals with itself, but also to how it deals with our County and City Councillors. The Sunday Business Post’s claimed this week that Councillors will seek a 40% pay rise as well as increased expenses once a new government forms. Perhaps ahead of examining the necessity for and possibility of this increase it should reform how our Councillors gain their seats in the first place.