A decade of achievement

5 November 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The tributes that the retiring Monaghan Co Manager Declan Nelson received at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council, and those he has been paid at local authority and other forums since news of his imminent departure from the role emerged, are well merited.

The ten years that have encompassed Mr Nelson’s period of service to Co Monaghan have been marked by considerable infrastructural development and the realisation of a number of long nurtured initiatives.  That this decade of progress, perhaps unprecedented in the county’s history, matched Mr Nelson’s tenure as Co Manager cannot be entirely coincidental.

A rapidly acquired understanding of the nature and needs of Monaghan evolved into a progressive vision.  We suspect that the Manager leaves his post with that vision only partly fulfilled, but he will no doubt draw solace from the fact that he has made meaningful input to a number of initiatives, most recently the evolution of a new economic development strategy for the county, which are possessed of the potential to add more building blocks to his legacy into the future.

Our departing Manager has been an exemplar of the high standards that one would hope would always be aspired to by the occupants of positions of senior responsibility in the public service.  The advice of Shakespeare’s Polonius to “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment”, could be said to denote his approach.

He has been consistently accommodating to the views of public representatives and community interests, but has not been reluctant to make unpopular decisions when he felt them necessary to uphold the principles of proper local government administration.  During his career in Monaghan he will not have pleased or been popular with everyone, but he enters into retirement commanding a great deal of respect as a man of principle and probity.

This regard, one feels, will be particularly developed among his staff, whose interests he upheld and whom he stoutly defended against criticism whenever he felt it was unfairly directed their way by councillors or members of the public.  Such esteem is a precious personal legacy to place alongside the many more tangible realisations of his ambitions for the county.

Sadly, Mr Nelson also leaves Monaghan Co Council in a position of considerable and worrying uncertainty.  This situation is not, of course, of his making.  It is deeply unsatisfactory, however, that the stage of his retirement has been reached without any clarity being forthcoming from the Dept of the Environment as to when, or indeed whether, another Monaghan Co Manager will be appointed in his place.

While the embargo on public service recruitment has been cited by one Government Minister as a possible reason for this situation, that is a patent smokescreen.

The fact that it seems the intention of the current Government, and perhaps also its successor, to embark on a programme of quite radical local government reform at some point in the near future, is also no vindication for Co Monaghan to be left in such a quandary.

The appointment of Mr David Fallon, an experienced and able official, to act as Acting Co Manager for the foreseeable future, will ensure stability in day-to-day administration.  It does not, however, dispel the fear that Co Monaghan could be relegated to a status where it is no longer deemed necessary to have its local government affairs overseen and co-ordinated by a senior administrator.

Some very worrying inferences could be drawn from the current state of affairs, and not merely from Co Monaghan’s point of view.  One theory that suggests itself is that an extreme, cost-driven shake-up of local authority administration is about to be unveiled in the Budget.  We might not be getting a new Co Manager because in future there might not be any – or any Co Councils, as we know them, to be administrated!

Whatever is coming down the line for local government, be it in December’s Budget or at a future point in time when the long-awaited White Paper in this area (no doubt being drastically tinkered with at present to make it compatible with the recommendations of the McCarthy report) gets to see the light of day, the auguries do not bode well for local democracy.

All the clues that can be drawn from the behaviour and attitude of the Government of the day suggest that in the changes that are planned, the saving of money will be the determining consideration.

What will be accorded lesser value, and what will suffer as a consequence, will be two things vital to the functioning of any local government system – the equipping of the professionals employed by that system to deliver the level of service they aspire to and which the public demands, and the conduit between the system and the public it serves provided by local elected representatives.

It is important that the Government do everything responsible to restore order to the public finances.  It would be folly, however, and decidedly irresponsible, if the administration of local government were rent asunder in a manner which sought to generate savings at the expense of the quality of services, or the already diluted democratic dividend by which the public have a stake, and a voice, in how their lives at local level are ordered.  There is economy, and then there is false economy.

The distinguished career in Co Monaghan of Mr Declan Nelson is evidence enough of the necessity of the county retaining its Co Manager post.  Hopefully clarity – and reassurance – on this issue will be forthcoming before too long.

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