Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)

Those contributions are spot on. I was first elected as a city councillor in 2004. Over the past 16 years, I experienced at first hand how the role and its associated demands have changed. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House today to address this important issue which goes to the core of our democracy. I thank the Independent Senators for facilitating the House with this debate, but there is unanimity among Senators regarding the importance of the role of our elected local representatives and the invaluable service they provide in that regard, not just to their local communities but also the support they give to us as national legislators in doing our jobs.

I speak as the first member of the Fianna Fáil group, but I should probably apologise because we have the Minister of State tormented in his short six-month period in office. We pestered him about this issue. He is not alone in that regard, because we have shared out the torment with the Ministers, Deputies O'Brien and McGrath. The Fianna Fáil Senators have also raised this issue directly with the Taoiseach on several occasions. I also pay tribute to the councillors' representatives on the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, who have done a tremendous job championing the role of councillors and highlighting this important issue. I refer to the issue of pay, which is of course what the media will talk about, and the working conditions of our elected local representatives.

When a programme for Government was being put together, Fianna Fáil Senators insisted that it include a commitment regarding local authority members. While we do not have unanimity regarding the Moorhead report, as a person who has worked at local authority level for a long time I certainly take issue with several of the assertions. I have only three minutes left, however, so I will not get into that area. We did insist, however, that a commitment concerning local authority members was contained within the programme for Government. We also insisted that the Moorhead report be published and that this Government deliver for members of local authorities in its first year.

The Minister of State knows that is what we are looking for, and we will not stop making that demand until it is delivered. I hope the Minister of State has come to the House today with some information for us in that regard. As the Cathaoirleach said, the more than 900 local authority members are tasked with giving strategic direction to the executives in our 31 local authorities. Those local authority members are also tasked with passing some €5 billion in budgets and dealing with the strategic development plans which will take two years, engage all our local communities and drive development in those local communities.All councillors are involved in such work. They chair and are members of strategic policy committees that determine by-laws and determine the level of service that is being delivered for environmental services, housing, the parks, libraries, etc. They are involved in all of these incredibly valuable services in communities and all local authority members do this work. They operate seven days a week. They are on-call in their local communities. They do not get to leave their local communities and they do such work with a heart. They champion their local communities, sports organisations and schools. They deal with individual constituents on a personal basis. They progress queries for them on an individual basis. They also champion their wider communities and counties. For all of that, the sum of €17,600 is not a living wage. I do not exaggerate when I say that the vast majority of councillors hold down full-time jobs but some are financially impoverished by the role that they undertake for their communities.

Local government is the cornerstone of our democracy and we need to ensure that local government is diverse in terms of demographics. We need more women, young people and people with experience to get involved in politics. If we want to ensure that we have diversity at the most detailed level of local democracy then we must pay a living wage. We must also provide a pension to these invaluable public servants. That is not an unreasonable request. For the women who will give of their time and take time out from their families and careers to serve their local communities, the minimum they deserve is to be provided with maternity leave. I had my three children while I served as a local authority member on Dublin City Council. I remember being in labour in the Rotunda Hospital and being castigated in the media for not attending a meeting. The ridiculousness of it. I could not be in two places at the one point in time. Honestly, maternity leave is a basic right.

All that the Fianna Fáil group is asking for is respect and recognition that the councillor role is not part-time. We want recognition that this is an incredibly valuable role in our democracy. We also want fair pay and fair compensation for a fair day's work that local authority members undertake seven days a week.

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