In May of this year, the Borough Council of Clonmel (still referred to by older citizens as “The Corporation”) will cease to exist and its functions, as yet to be defined, will be taken over by Tipperary County Council, an institution which, in itself, will represent the unification of the two administrative areas of the North and South Ridings.
All of this will be done in pursuit of reform, efficiency and cost-saving: or so we, the ordinary people, the electorate, have been told and we have been told very little.
It could be argued that the Council, as an instrument of some level of local governance, has been in existence in the town since 1319, when King Edward II granted the right to levy a toll for seven years for the building of the town walls, to “the Provost, Bailiffs and goodmen of Clonmel.”
The Charter of Incorporation of 1608 gave the town a more structured local authority to regulate its own affairs, but it was the Municipal Reform Act of 1842 that brought some element of modern democracy into local government.
We have only sketchy information on the venues in which the Council members met over the centuries. There is a reference to the Main Guard, and to the Grand Jury room in the Court House (completed in 1800), but we do know that, in 1881, the Town Hall was built, as the official offices of the Council. The very handsome structure was erected on the site of the Great Globe Inn, which itself incorporated a 17th century mansion, the home of Richard Hamerton, a businessman who is described as purchasing woods and exporting pipe-staves. The last members of the Hamerton family lived in William Street into the second half of the 20th century.
So: the Borough Council (the Corporation) has had a presence, and an influence, on the town for eight centuries. And for more than a century, the Town Hall has featured as part of our architectural heritage - a building which citizens have been proud to “show off” to visitors. From the very little we have been told (and repeat, repeat, we have had the minimum of information and much of that hearsay!), when the Council is abolished, a small office will be maintained in the building. And, again, the rumour-mill says, it will be registered as a venue for civil marriages.
THE END OF AN ERA
We have reached the end of an era in an institution and in a building, and yet the abolition of the Council, and the closure of a historic building, does not seem to have excited the slightest interest amongst citizens. As a subject of even casual conversation (I’ve tried it) it is a non-runner, a bit of a yawn. You know that it is a turn-off when somebody responds with: “I couldn’t give a hang.”
It would seem that neither appears sufficiencly interesting to the electorate to evoke a debate or a modest protest; an event that will not be marked by a bang - indeed not even by a whimper!
Why is this? Is it because successive Irish governments have, over the decades, so denuded the elected representatives of local authorities of any real power or influence? Most of the important decision-making has been vested in the executive.
The only two powers remaining to the representatives have revolved around the preparation of the annual accounts and the five-yearly revision of the town or county plan. And even these have been so circumscribed that there has been facility for little more than tweaking.
So what of the new reforms? The Minister has said that local authorities will be given wider powers; more influence in how countries and towns are to be progressed and maintained; more local input to reflect local needs.
But what these powers will be, have not been revealed to the electorate. And though we, ordinary people, have the ultimate decision in electing our representatives, the powers-that-be have given not a hint of the agenda of the proposed reforms. Not to us. Will these be real and meaningful, or just meaningless window-dressing?
This attitude should not surprise us. Local government has never been good at communication, nor at modern public relations.
In theory, over the past few years, public access to some discretionary areas of Council meetings has been allowable. While that access was originally surrounded by discouraging bureaucracy (involving a three weeks application period and sponsorship by a representative), it has since become considerably more relaxed. Yet, how few people know about it? (I once inquired of a member of Tippereary Council about application procedures, and was told that he “never heard of anybody interested in attending a meeting”).
Local democracy has been eroded substantially in the last few decades. It is too important to be left to official language, and to statutory notices, sub-section this and sub-section that. Ordinary people need information. The proposed reforms should be circulating now, for public scrutiny and public debate. People need to know, long before next May, what they will be voting for.
Public engagement is vital if we are to reverse the indifference and disinterest now reflected by voters in the “couldn’t care less” attitude towards the dissolution of the Borough Council - the ancient Corporation - and the virtual closure of the Town Hall.