Elections for local authority membership will take place within the next few weeks, on May 24. Yet, it seems that electioneering, as such, has been little in evidence. So far I have had only one communication from a prospective candidate, in a constituency (Clonmel) where there will now be accommodation for six, rather than the four, elected five years ago.
On that occasion we, the electorate, were voting, for the first time, for a Tipperary County Council, in which the two Ridings, North and South, were reunited after nearly a century-and-a-half of separation. The historic Corporation of Clonmel was abolished, snuffed out, without any reference or say-so from ordinary people and so too were many of the Town Councils which had reflected the needs of local communities over many decades.
This was done by the then Minister for Local Government, Phil Hogan. It was done arbitrarily, undemocratically, based on the argument that the abolition, and the reunification of Tipperary, would achieve more efficiency, improved access for the public and would save money. It was also argued that more powers for decision-making would evolve down to the elected representatives. Mr Hogan then departed from Local Government to take up a Commissionership in the European Community.
So have all of these changes (presented as reforms) achieved all the benefits and services to the public, that were promised? Do any of us, ordinary Joe Soaps in the streets, know? We do know, and are very appreciative of the obvious improvements, the lovely flowers and landscaping of our parks and streets, the restoration of footpaths, the resurfacing of roads, the reduction in potholes.
But we also see the neglect, and now rapid deterioration, of our town centres, where premises are highly-rated, when even a modest upgrading of the fabric of a building can be punished by a sustantial increase in valuation, and where there is neither an active policy, nor any financial aid, for the restoration of vast areas of over-shop space into residential accommodation - thus bringing footfall on our streets.
It is conceded that proaction in much of this has to come from central government (some is already coming from the EU) but surely the real demand has to be initiated at local level, from our local authorities, from the agitation and persistence of the people we elect? Is it? Again, we don’t know. There is little communication between us, the electorate, and the elected, once they are elected (if you get my meaning!).
And that brings this column back to one of the aspirations of Phil Hogan in his abolition of the Corporation of Clonmel and the Town Councils - access. The Council with which I was most familiar was the Corporation. It was an old institution in my town. It had a nice office, The Town Hall, in Parnell Street, where the doors were always open during office hours. Ordinary citizens had easy access. They paid rent and rates there. They could buy a grave in the cemetery there, or once upon a time, they could buy fuel there, or inspect planning applications and documentation, or housing lists.
And they could complain - when the water was disconnected, or garbag was not collected, or the sewer in the street was overflowing, or there was a deep pothole at the front door. And where citizens could send delegations or even attend meetings in the final years of the Corpo’s existence.
Most of these things can still be done, of course, but the array of officess can be confusing: a suite in Clonmel town, more in Ballingarrane, another building in Thurles and a large complex in Nenagh. Which does what? I know none of this is insurmountable but it does challenge the aspiration of easier public access.
Also most of us, citizens in Clonmel, knew our elected representatives. We met them in the shops, after Sunday Mass, in the streets. We could “give out to them.” And we did. We blamed them for the floods, for parking fees, for the lack of pedestrian crossings. Like all institutions, the Corporation was a focus for our frustrations. But then it was gone, obliterated, at the whim of one man. We did not protest at its passing: nor did we mark its longevity, nor its contribution to the growth of our town over the centuries.
In some form or other it dated back to medieval times, when Clonmel was given the stutus of ‘burg' and enacted its own regulations on trade and markets and fairs. It was reformed under legislation in 1608, and later still post the Cromwellian period. The major reforms, however, took place in the 1840s and again in 1919 when it was brought into modern times. It had long held the status of a Borough Council with the right to elect its First Citizen, The Mayor, and to define its own boundaries. For almost two centuries, and up to recent times, service as an elected representative, was voluntary, unpaid. Yet, the Corporation was responsible for almost every major advancement in the town.
I suppose it is naive to hope that the capital town of Tipperary might have its Corporation restored at some time in the future. Some references have been made in the Dáil to the possble restoration of the Borough status which was once held by seven large Irish town, amongst them Clonmel. Better do it before Phil Hogan returns to Irish politics from his European sojourn.
Meanwhile here is a cry from the heart of one Clonmel citizen: Come back Corporation! All is forgiven!