‘Our own former colleagues happily sat and watched as local councils were stripped almost totally bare’

OPINION: The 2014 decision by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to abolish the former town councils was a massive mistake that made a mockery of democracy, according to veteran Killarney politician Cllr Michael Gleeson.

Having served on the town council from 1991-2014 and on Kerry County Council from 1999 to the present day, the veteran Kerry Independent Alliance councillor reflects on how some colleagues on Kerry County Council happily sat and watched as local councillors were taken apart. But, despite the setbacks, he told this week’s annual draft budget of Kerry County Council that the current local authority has stood tall on behalf of the people during the Covid-19 crisis and the chief executive and council staff have performed superbly.

THROUGH my years as a councillor, I have spoken and written, at length, about the importance of local government even though, all the while, it was being diminished and decimated by the arrogance of central government.
Our own former colleagues, those whose political careers started on Kerry County Council and in similar chambers, quite happily sat and watched as local councils were stripped almost totally bare.
Last Friday’s editorial in the Irish Times said it well: “Somewhere along the line we’ve denuded councils of their power.”

Kerry County Council staff members working at the a helpline to help people accessing non-emergency and non-medical services during the pandemic

The only fault that I have with that statement is that the denudation has occurred many times and in many ways and it continues.
But Kerry County Council, despite the terrible constraints and despite the absence of meaningful subsidiarity, has been magnificent when the need has been and still is greatest.
At every level, Kerry County Council has stood tall on behalf of its beleaguered people during this time of pandemic. Advice has been given, contacts have been established, grants have been allocated and people have been prioritised.
These activities could not have been done to such good effect without local authorities. We should all be grateful that they exist and that we are privileged to serve.
I want to acknowledge the enormous efforts of our CEO, Moira Murrell, and all of the officials and staff who have performed superbly.
That all of those activities could be taking place while so many really worthwhile projects were being progressed shows, quite clearly, the real potential of local councils if they were properly respected and funded.
I am pleased that the rates harmonisation is continuing for its full eight years. I’m pleased also at some wonderful new housing projects that have been or are about to be allocated.
I am so delighted that Tomies is progressing and that the Flesk walkway and cycleway in Killarney is being developed. The wonderful news on the greenways, north and south, and particularly the South Kerry Greenway, are real testament to commitment and diligence.

Following the escalation of the Covid-19 lockdown, the council’s focus turned to essential and emergency services

Of course, the economy of the county has been disproportionately impacted because we are a tourist county but we are resilient and progressive. We will recover and we will have ever newer and better facilities to add to our traditional warmth and natural beauty.
I believe that Traveller accommodation needs to be on a par with all other housing.
The standard or lack of standard of our footpaths is totally unacceptable and their improvement should not be so dependent on councillors’ allocations.

Kerry County Council outdoor staff maintain the streets and flower beds in Killarney during the lockdown

I also am concerned about recent revelations regarding the cost of house purchase from the private sector and central government needs to be informed that, if we are allowed, we know a better way of doing business.
Our biggest challenges are related to climate change and we must have plans in place to adapt and adjust. We cannot hold back the tide, either physically or metaphorically. But we have to have a clear vision of how we, as a county, will cope with the enormous challenges that lie ahead.
I intend to reserve any further comments for those many important days when we will be discussing the actual long term future of our county in the new County Development Plan.
We cannot spend our lives playing into the hands of central government by saying: The government must……. WE must act for ourselves and work to develop our county and to protect it from the ravages of change.
If the government has ears to hear and brains to understand it might realise that the only hope for people is the return of meaningful power to those who know best and serve best: The members and officials of local authorities.
The terrible pandemic may have some unintended benefit for the re-birth of meaningful democracy. It may help government to understand that local democracy, real local democracy is vital for the well-being of local people.

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