Beyond the call of duty

14 January 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 has been an unpleasant one for many people in Co Monaghan due to the severity of the climate. Negotiating roads and footpaths became a hazardous and risky venture for motorists and pedestrians. And even the sanctuary of the home was invaded by the icy tendrils of the weather, with Christmas and New Year for some being blighted by problems with heating systems or water supply, or the outright calamity of burst pipes.
Throughout it all the good men and women who work for our local authorities have found themselves in the front line, not just of the onslaught of some of the harshest manifestations of winter in living memory but, on occasions, of the exasperation and impatience of the public.
While patience and good manners form pre-requisites common to all forms of modern professional life, when these qualities are not reciprocated, or are found lacking in those we deal with, many of us in our working lives have the luxury of indulging in the righteous intolerance embodied in the phrase “I’m not paid to listen to this!”
That luxury is not one customarily afforded to those in the local government branch of the public sector nor, we suspect, is it one that its members would indulge themselves in were it acceptable. The spirit of public service animating the outdoor staff of Town and Co Councils who have battled against the elements above and beyond the call of duty in recent weeks deflects the unkind word and the critical glance with the same equanimity with which the arduous task of keeping roads clear and water running is discharged every winter.
It was good, then, to hear the many workers who laboured self-sacrificingly over recent weeks to solve the various problems presented by the unprecedented fall in winter weather temperatures get some due recognition at Tuesday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council. Those who laboured in the teeth of the Arctic conditions, and those who co-ordinated their efforts and dealt with public complaints and the many emergency situations that arose, did so without the sort of pecuniary remuneration they might have expected in the days before the current economic crisis placed strictures on public sector overtime. To know their endeavour was valued by the senior executive and elected representation of their place of employment is the least they are due, but will have been appreciated nonetheless.
Such tributes will be endorsed by the majority of the members of the public, notwithstanding the fact that, despite the best efforts of Councils throughout the county, many roads remained unattended to and delays in the restoration of water supply and the repair of leaks did occur.
There are many lessons to be learned from the recent experiences forced upon us by the bad weather. The folly of residing responsibility for the acquisition and distribution of salt to clear our roads in a centralised structure such as the National Roads Authority, rather than allowing individual local authorities to acquire the material themselves and have the freedom to determine where and how best it could be used, was laid bare with a blinding clarity that not even the most myopic and self-sustaining State body, or responsibility-shy Government Minister, could have failed to have been stung by. With a change of government in the offing before the country is next exposed to the full harshness of our worsening winters, it is imperative that the incoming administration absorbs the patently obvious lesson of allowing local authorities to once again assume the determining role in how the problems created are tackled at local level, by – crucially – ensuring them of the resources to get the job done.
The big freeze has also underscored the woefully antiquated condition of much of the water infrastructure in this country. Some commendable steps have been taken in Co Monaghan to replace the most decrepit of the pipelines carrying water to several of our towns and rural areas, and the implementation of water conservation measures has been one of the success stories of recent years at local government level in the county. Indeed, it was the advances in conservation that, according to Acting Co Manager David Fallon, allowed our local authorities to deal as efficiently as they did with the severe problems which the sub-zero temperatures precipitated.
Minister for the Environment John Gormley has publicly acknowledged the need to expedite the national programme to upgrade water infrastructure, but where his Dept is concerned actions have spoken much more softly than words when it has come to significant capital investment. Again, this is an area where, we would suggest, redress cannot be brought about effectively by a Government Dept or quasi-independent organ of State acting at an isolated remove from detailed awareness of local circumstances and deficiencies.
Local authorities have readily available to them the knowledge of where and how best capital investment in this area can be spent. Minister Gormley has presided over many changes that have served to undermine or belittle the effectiveness of the local tier of government during his time in office – hopefully his successor will adhere to both a policy and ideological platform that will reverse a trend that, if unchecked, will prove fatally injurious not just to the machinery, but the whole principle, of local democracy.
If there is one thing that the recent battle against the elements has demonstrated, it is the essential value of local knowledge and local commitment in addressing the practical problems that fall to local government to address at these times.
It was highly significant to hear Acting Co Manager Mr Fallon state on Tuesday that a ‘knife-edge’ scenario regarding the water supply situation in Carrickmacross was brought back from the brink thanks to the intimate familiarity which some local authority staff members in the area possessed of the functioning of the town network. There is a significant reservoir of such knowledge in the possession of local authorities, and one of the most regrettable consequences of the rationalisation of staff which is being imposed on this branch of the public sector is that a good deal of it becomes irretrievably lost when its possessors retire and are lost to the service.
Colr Paudge Connolly advocated on Tuesday that a means be found to preserve and record such information so it can be at the disposal of its possessors’ successors. It is arguable, however, if this very admirable suggestion is realisable in practical terms. The quality of such knowledge, born of not just accumulated experience but of a caring and fastidious approach to duty that transcends the bounds of mere professionalism, is of an almost intuitive nature that is not easily transmittable. Its acquisition is born of the same local patriotism that inspires so many of those who give service to local government to go well beyond the call of duty when difficult and challenging times, such as those Co Monaghan has experienced in the last few weeks, arise.
Such attributes form the quintessence of good local government in action or, as the Acting Co Manager has observed, public service at its best. It is important that they are preserved in the changes that are looming for this sector in the very near future.

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