Local government in Ireland
By Andrew Stevens, City Mayors Fellow

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Irish with a British accent
May 2024: Local government in the Republic of Ireland predates its national political structures, with the constitutional arrangements laid down under British rule in the late nineteenth century largely remaining in place. Ireland’s local government arrangements consisted until recently of 29 county and county borough councils with a set of smaller town and in some cases borough councils at the sub-tier. A big bang reorganisation in 2014 saw this number streamlined and flattened into 31 all-purpose local authorities through a series of mergers, in response to Ireland’s recent economic and political crisis.

Both the Republic of Ireland (population five million) and the Island of Ireland itself (including the British-governed Northern Ireland as part of the historic province of Ulster) are considered to be geographically part of the British Isles but this has more currency in considering Europe’s geographical make-up than in political terms, for a variety of reasons. Among those in the Republic who disapprove of the phrase ‘British’ a more neutral term suggested is ‘Islands of the North Atlantic’ (as the Celtic sounding IONA), though this has yet to gain widespread acceptance.

The history between Ireland and its neighbour in the form of the United Kingdom has been characterised by a number of invasions and wars, with legal incorporation beginning in 1801 with the Act of Union and ending in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act, which saw the 26 counties of the Catholic south secede from the United Kingdom to leave the six counties of the Protestant north in place as the self-governing province of Northern Ireland. Within the Island of Ireland itself, five million are resident in the Republic and 1.9 million live in the North. Since the peace process brokered in the late 1990s, a number of North-South political institutions have been created and laws exist to accord political rights north and south of the border to all citizens of the island.

Ireland makes much of its Christian heritage and the role of religion has traditionally been central to many people’s lives throughout the country. In the 1990s, after decades of a sluggish economy, Ireland enjoyed an unparalleled economic boom and rebranded itself as a ‘Celtic Tiger’. Tourism plays a major role in the national economy, both rural and in the capital Dublin while agriculture plays an important role. Ireland also enjoys a vibrant cultural life and heritage.

The Island of Ireland is divided into four traditional provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. These are further divided into 32 historic counties throughout the island, with six remaining north of the border in Northern Ireland (UK). Six counties of the nine counties of Ulster are in Northern Ireland, with three remaining in the Republic, thus rendering the term Ulster politically inaccurate if used to denote political boundaries. The four provinces have no administrative structure, either in the Republic or Northern Ireland. In the Republic, the 26 counties are reflected in its administrative counties, except in Dublin.  In Northern Ireland, the remaining six counties are defunct in local government terms, with 11 district councils existing in the province (also subject to reorganisation in 2014, down from 26), though the six counties are used for some civil service functions under the direction of its political institutions.

Dublin has long served as the Irish capital since the island was divided into tribal kingdoms. The city of Dublin has a population of 554,000, though the metropolitan area including surrounding counties is estimated at 1.9 million. Dublin City Council (known as the Dublin Corporation until 2002) is presided over by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, a ceremonial post appointed to from among the city's 63 assembly members. Executive power currently resides with an appointed city manager, who oversees a staff of 6,000 city officials and employees. The city is twinned with Barcelona, Liverpool and San Jose, California.

Outside of Dublin, a varied pattern of local government existed. Local government in the Republic owes its genesis to the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, which was actually passed by the United Kingdom’s Parliament at Westminster with the aim of reforming Irish councils along the lines of those recently created on the mainland. This ushered in a two-tier system for most of the island, with all-purpose county boroughs in large urban centres. Subsequent legislation passed by the Irish Parliament has amended this Act but it remains in force today, in addition to the recognition of local government’s status in the Constitution of Ireland, as amended in 1999.

Instead of the 26 historic counties of the south, local government in the Republic was subdivided into 29 administrative counties, with 24 of the historic counties being reflected by an elected county council. Dublin is further divided into three counties while Tipperary was divided into North and South. There are five cities in the Republic, each with its own city council, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. The five city councils were considered as having the same power and status as the counties. A sub-tier generally known as town councils also existed, though five (including the city of Kilkenny) styled themselves borough councils. Local government in Ireland has seen a steady erosion of its powers since 1945, with a number of functions passing to central government-appointed boards. Like the city manager in Dublin, each council has an official manager (since 2014, chief executive), who carries out many tasks ordinarily reserved for political leaders elsewhere in European local government.

Though the pattern of local authorities in Ireland is complex and uneven, the role of local government itself corresponds to a general model of local administration, with locally-elected councils working within a policy framework determined by the centre. Therefore the elected element merely provides for minor local variance to such policies and the cover of local democracy within a highly centralised system. Principally, Irish local authorities exercise limited jurisdiction over education, health, housing, roads, water supply services, sewerage and waste, local economic development, planning, environmental protection, culture, sport and agriculture. A review of local government commissioned by the central government and reporting in 2006, recommended some fiscal reforms to allow for local revenue-raising and more autonomy in local service provision, but this was ultimately rejected by the government.  However, ahead of the 2014 reforms a sufficient head of steam was built up to implement the introduction of Ireland's Local Property Tax from 2013, which is based on self-assessed market values of each residential property as a contribution towards local services.

Local government in Ireland is overseen by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.  The minister of the previous department between 1997 and 2002, Noel Dempsey of Fianna Fáil, was seen as a reformer and oversaw substantial changes, including constitutional recognition of local councils and the introduction of public service reforms. His successor, John Gormley, was known for his keenness to devolve more powers to local councils and introduce elected mayors, including a powerful metropolitan authority for Greater Dublin headed by an elected mayor. Gormley, a Green and former Lord Mayor of Dublin entered government in 2007 as part of the Fianna Fáil-led coalition, which introduced an unsuccessful bill to legislate for an elected mayor of Dublin.

The Fine Gael/Labour coalition elected in March 2011 stated its intent to introduce an elected mayor of Dublin by 2014, alongside the possibility of elected mayors for other Irish local authorities to replace council managers as part of a shake-up of Ireland's creaking and inefficient century-old system.  In October 2012 the environment and local government minister Phil Hogan announced the details of its reform package, to merge 114 local authorities into a more streamlined structure of 31 all-purpose counties and districts (councillors elected simultaneously to counties and smaller municipal districts), reduce the number of councillors to just 949, introduce a new local property tax and allow for a referendum on a Dublin city mayor in 2014.  The referendum plan failed to progress however as the 2014 law to provide for its staging required consensus across all four Dublin authorities before any public vote could be held, with one council vetoing the proposal in March 2014.  In 2019 voters in Limerick backed an elected mayor for the city, which was introduced as Ireland's first in 2024, though similar referendums in Cork and Waterford saw the proposals rejected.  The Irish Government floated a referendum on revived proposals for a Dublin city mayor under the historic coalition deal agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael following the inconclusive 2020 general election, though it has since rescinded its support for this.

All councils on the island are elected to by proportional representation and councillors generally belong to one of the main political parties. Most political parties in Ireland, north and south, owe their origins to either the Irish civil war or sectarian religious considerations. For instance, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represented different sides in the civil war of 1922-23. Catholic-led Sinn Féin, which aims for a united Ireland, organises throughout the 32 counties, while the Democratic Unionist Party does not.

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