5 June 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The last word on the Town Council era of local government in Co Monaghan has now been spoken.

The valedictory functions of the Castleblayney and Monaghan authorities, reported this week, and those of Clones, Carrickmacross and Ballybay that preceded them, are significant events in our history.

Taken with the local government election process that will be completed in the county this weekend, they mark a point of momentous transition in the manner in which the business of local administration, a key one in public society, is delivered.

The public of Co Monaghan will have already begun to experience a difference in the manner of their interaction with local government, and as staff are redeployed and the location of services in some cases shifts, that initial experience might sometimes be one of inconvenience and adjustment.

Any rush to negative judgement should be forestalled – it will be some time yet before the new local government landscape achieves clear definition in our county, and the promise it holds out for communities to claim a greater say in shaping their future development makes even its partial eventual realisation worth waiting for.

It seems more opportune to pause on the crossing point and cast an appreciative glance back at the old edifice, now abandoned, that served us long and well.

At such a moment, the light that illuminates the backward glance can cast a nostalgic sheen that obscures the cracks and antiquated features of the edifice – but even if we acknowledge that the municipal tier of administration had its flaws and its inefficiencies, it played an integral role in shaping Irish social development over the past century and more.

The genesis and growth of town government in Ireland is historically significant, as it has proceeded more or less in step with our transition from a predominantly rural to an increasingly urbanised population.

Although invasion and colonisation from the Viking period onward give birth to many of our towns and created various systems for their administration, local government as we experience it is generally dated back to the eponymous Act of 1898 which replaced the grand jury system with county councils and also brought urban and rural district councils into being.

Since this first true flowering of local democracy, the Town Council has been an accurate mirror of social progress and often an engine for it – a study of the annals of any of Monaghan’s five urban authorities will show shifts in the ethnic, professional and political identity of its elected membership informative of wider cultural and civic change, while an analysis of the business that occupied those men and women down the decades will disclose how our towns evolved in their employment and housing patterns and how their people changed in their social priorities and concerns.

What is less thoroughly charted in the records is the growth of another force in Irish life, one that has emerged to claim a powerful say in our modern era in how things function at a local level – and perhaps in that lacuna lies the seeds of the fate that has now befallen municipal administration.

The growth of public society as enshrined in local government has been gradually rivalled by the rise of an increasingly assertive civil society manifested in community development organisations, advocacy groups, business and trade unions, faith-based alliances and self-help bodies.

There was a time when local authorities kept such organisations at a wary distance and circumscribed their interactions with them.

Over recent decades, however, civil society has claimed increasing relevancy in our lives, first in rural areas through community development bodies and increasingly so in our towns with the emergence of residents associations. At the same time people with common cause arising from professional interest, care and support need or recreational enthusiasm have through organised advocacy also claimed a greater say in the decisions that concern them.

Local authorities began to find they could no longer ignore the knockings of civil society on their door – and in recent times have engaged quite willingly, and sometimes very productively, with this potent social force.

One view that could be taken of the current local government reforms is that the influence of civil society has grown to such an extent in modern Irish life that an unprecedented flexibility has to be imposed on public society at local level to work effectively with it – and to achieve that flexibility, the element of local democracy that dealt exclusively with the running of towns has been dispensed with.

This thesis would seem to be supported by the proposals for the formation of Public Participation Networks allowing community interests to work closely with the new Co Council structure at Municipal District level.

Such networks will be important – all our towns in particular will need them, our county town most particularly perhaps because of the demise of its Chamber of Commerce, and it is important that they are as widely representative of the communities they will purport to speak for as possible.

Although operating on a much more companionable basis than they once did, public society and civil society have an ongoing tension in their relationship and there are a number of potential flashpoints to their future interaction in our own county that will have to be carefully managed for the ‘marriage’ to be a happy one. The dissatisfaction in the community about changes in the operation of the Local Development Company structures is a case in point.

Smoothing this enhanced interaction between the public and the civil is perhaps the key challenge of our new Co Council and its supporting Municipal District subsidiaries.

The task will certainly impinge on the future development of our towns – and how those towns will develop in the future without a specific local authority of their own will also be key to how the changes the local government elections have swept in will be evaluated.

A town, or towns, now lie within the remit of each of our Co Council representatives as well as the rural hinterlands of their electoral areas – how the scarce resources of local government are apportioned between their urban and rural constituents, and between our ‘major’ towns of Monaghan and Carrickmacross and their little brothers of ‘Blayney, Clones and Ballybay, will entail a judicious balancing act.

The Town Council meeting chamber, often a clangourous crucible for debate and disputation, is now silent.

But, we imagine, the ‘talk of the towns’ will continue to feature loudly in the deliberations of our new local authority forums – and bear heavily on how their worth is judged.

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