Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)

I welcome the debate and I welcome the Minister of State. I commend him on all the work he is doing for local government, not just in regard to this issue but to a range of issues that he has tackled from the get-go. I was a member of a local authority for 17 years. I have a deep passion for this subject and it is evident that the Minister of State shares that passion. He is driving this issue forward.

I have in front of me two newspaper articles. The headline of one states that councillors are in line for a pay bump that will net them an additional €8,000, while the other article states, "Long sought pay rises [...] expected to be in the region of €8,000".They are for the most part, once the sensationalist adjectives are stripped away, pretty much the same article with one notable difference: one was written last week; one was written in 2019. That is where we are, a saga that has now been running longer than "Game of Thrones". I walked down to the committee rooms and to a meeting of the local government committee in November 2019 with Senator Boyhan. We went down to do our job and to question the then Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, on the imminent publication of the Moorhead report, only for it to be leaked to "Morning Ireland" that morning as we were walking down, before we got to the committee room. That was the manner in which business was conducted back then, and let us not forget it because there is a political narrative developing here surrounding the current situation and one wonders whether those spreading it are developing amnesia. I met the then Minister of State on 10 July 2019, back when I was shadowing him, in his office. He told me the memo on the report would go to Cabinet at the last Cabinet meeting of that summer. That was July 2019. That is what he told me. There were not two men in the room; Senator Mark Daly was with me in the room that day as well. We know what was said, and I made notes on what was said. That was the message that was delivered quite clearly by the Minister of State's predecessor. The message was that this would be sorted in summer 2019, and here we are nearly two years later and quite clearly it is not been sorted. It was sitting on the then Minister of State's desk for so long it could have mutated, sprouted legs and walked to the Cabinet room on its own.

I will move on from that period because, as evidenced by the speeches today, people want to get to a resolution of this report and the work that is carried out. I said at the outset that there are people who believe that the councillors must now be on a six-figure salary as it has been announced so many times. Let us be clear: what we are talking about is current remuneration of just €17,000 for the work they do. They are without doubt the lowest-paid members - not employees - of the local authority system yet they are the public persons who deal with the queries daily. They also act as ambassadors on behalf of the executive to promote the positive work done by local authorities. Prior to the publication of the report, as Senator Boyhan noted earlier, both councillor representative bodies, namely, the AILG, which at the time was led by Luie McEntire, thereafter by Mick Cahill and now by Councillor Mary Hoade, and LAMA, led by our late colleague, Mags Murray, to whom I pay tribute and remember today and Micheál Anglim, spent time setting out the work done by their members across a range of areas and how they are expected to be knowledgeable in a range of areas. The Cathaoirleach must have been reading back on my speech for the introduction of my local government Bill in 2017 when he quoted earlier the numbers of representatives. In France there is one councillor for every 78 citizens; in Ireland there is one for every 4,000, which is the lowest ratio in western Europe. The knifing of town councils was not just an act of barbarism towards local democracy; it also resulted in extra work from the urbanised areas being placed on the county councillors. The Minister of State would appreciate that as a Mullingar man. I acknowledge Senator Moynihan's comments earlier that Labour was wrong to have participated in the destruction of town councils. Her former party leader, Deputy Howlin, made a similar comment in the previous Dáil.

What is most worrying from the analysis of the Moorhead report, and other reports since the research has been carried out, is that as a body politic we will find it increasingly difficult, no matter the party and whether Independent or not, to attract new people into politics. It is okay for people to make derisory comments and scoff about these kinds of debates but that is the stark reality. The level of commitment to local office since I first got elected as a 21-year-old in 1999 has been immense. There are the legislative requirements with which we expect councillors to be au fait. There are the attacks to which they are now subjected on social media, which we at national level probably brush off, even though we should not. They are now part and parcel of local democracy, which is awful and wrong. Why would a young person subject himself or herself to that and become involved in our local democratic institutions? How will we attract the next generation? Again, it is all right for people to scoff at this but as we saw in America, there is a fine line and it can be destroyed. To those who scoff at this and at those who put themselves out there at a local level, I make the point that our local councillors are promoting and maintaining the very democracy we enjoy. The backdrop to this debate is the fact that several county development plans are in preparation at present, including in my home county of Meath and in the Minister of State's home county of Westmeath. These plans are highly detailed documents that set out the futures of our counties, towns and villages. A significant level of knowledge and commitment, as well as eight-hour days each day for weeks on end, are involved in the process. Remarks were made earlier about peoples' commitment to this process and this report but for the first time ever, we now have a commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Moorhead report in the programme for Government. All 20 Fianna Fáil Senators are behind that process and I say that on behalf of all the members we represent. I appreciate that the Minister of State acted in respect of this issue when he came into office. He put it on his agenda and put the wheels in motion. He is to be commended for that but now we need to see this process come to a conclusion. Effectively, this comes down to the simple issue of whether we value the work of our local councillors. If we agree that we do, then we need to put the appropriate support in place for them.

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