The rise and fall of local democracy

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2(March/April 2011), The Act of Union, Volume 19

The physical embodiment of Ireland’s ‘municipal revolution’? Belfast City Hall, constructed 1898–1906, the largest and most impressive city or town hall in Ireland. (Allan Kirk, http://www.framedwithcare.com)

The physical embodiment of Ireland’s ‘municipal revolution’? Belfast City Hall, constructed 1898–1906, the largest and most impressive city or town hall in Ireland. (Allan Kirk, http://www.framedwithcare.com)

The term ‘municipal revolution’ was coined by Sidney and Beatrix Webb to describe the nineteenth-century transformation of borough corporations in England and Wales, and was first applied to Ireland by the present author in 2010. The Municipal Revolution in Ireland has been overlooked for a number of reasons. One is that Irish nationalism imagined the nation to be rural, Gaelic and Catholic. Second, the urban proportion (officially defined as being towns with a population of 1,500 or more) of the total population, though steadily rising, for long remained comparatively low. For the whole island it amounted to around 15% in 1841 and 35% in 1911, while in independent Ireland it was 39% in 1926 and 61% in 2006 (the tipping point was in the 1960s). Third, the Irish urban network was largely constructed as part of successive waves of foreign conquest and settlement, such as Anglo-Norman colonisation (1169–1300) and the Plantations (1550–1700).

The Revolution gets under way
The first instalment of municipal reform in Ireland occurred accidentally as a result of the Act of Union (1800), under which 84 of the 117 corporations lost their status as parliamentary boroughs and 48 became extinct soon after, as they had discharged no other function except the return of MPs. The Municipal Revolution in Ireland did not, however, get under way until 1828. One of its most significant features was the establishment of central government control over the local state for the first time, through a series of acts that facilitated the establishment of town commissions, abolished municipal corporations, created Poor Law unions and extended the franchise.

Daniel O’Connell (by Sir George Hayter), who was elected the first Catholic lord mayor of Dublin (1841–2) since the Reformation and thus personified the capture of Irish municipal government by the Catholic middle classes. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Daniel O’Connell (by Sir George Hayter), who was elected the first Catholic lord mayor of Dublin (1841–2) since the Reformation and thus personified the capture of Irish municipal government by the Catholic middle classes. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

It began with the unrevolutionary-sounding Lighting of Towns Act (1828), which provided a framework under which an urban area could elect a body of commissioners (informally known as a town board or town council) without recourse to a separate and local act, as had hitherto been the case. All householders rated at £5 or over living in or within one mile of a town were to decide at public meetings whether or not to adopt all or part of the act. If they did so, a board of commissioners was to be elected by householders rated at £5 or over. Only those with property worth £20 or more per year were eligible to serve as commissioners. Later, the Town Improvements (Ireland) Act (1854) provided for the election of commissioners under a broader franchise (householders with a £4 instead of £5 annual valuation) and from a wider pool of ratepayers (£12 instead of £20 valuation), and by granting the town boards greater powers than under the 1828 act. Under these two statutes (augmented by a few local acts), a total of 122 municipal councils were established in Ireland (1828–1922), the main functions of which were street paving, cleaning and lighting, night watch and control over fairs and markets.
In the meantime, the 69 boroughs that had survived the Act of Union were tackled in the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, 1840, under which 59 of them were abolished, leaving only ten (Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny, Drogheda, Clonmel, Sligo, Belfast and Derry, joined by an eleventh, Wexford, in 1846), which were given very limited powers, mainly to make bye-laws for the good government of the borough and to prevent and suppress nuisances (dangerous or unsanitary buildings or places). Their powers were later augmented, however, when most of them adopted the Town Improvements Act.

‘Gas and water socialism’
The last 30 years of the nineteenth century were characterised by the growth of the local state’s activities as a result of municipal socialism. First, various services previously provided by private companies such as gas, water and electricity were municipalised, which resulted in the emergence in Britain of the term ‘gas and water socialism’. Second, municipalities began to take responsibility for areas in which they had not previously been involved, such as public health, social housing and libraries.

W.T. Cosgrave, an outstanding example of a national political figure who began his career in municipal politics. He sat on Dublin Corporation from 1909 to 1922. (Library of Congress)

W.T. Cosgrave, an outstanding example of a national political figure who began his career in municipal politics. He sat on Dublin Corporation from 1909 to 1922. (Library of Congress)

In addition, the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act (1838) divided the country into 130 (later 163) Poor Law unions, each of which had an administrative centre in its principal town. The object of the system was to provide ‘indoor relief’ (food and lodgings in the workhouse) for the most deserving poor. Outdoor relief (assistance outside the workhouse) was not permitted until 1847. Each union was administered by a board of guardians, the first representative local authorities outside urban areas ever established in Ireland, half elected by the ratepayers of the union, and half local magistrates appointed ex officio. Poor Law unions were fully fledged local government institutions, and in urban areas their impact was as great as that of borough corporations and town commissioners, and even more so in non-municipal towns that lacked their own city or town councils. Poor Law unions were later given several additional functions, including the control of the nationwide system of dispensaries established under the Medical Charities (Ireland) Act (1851); the registering of births, deaths and marriages (1864); and, outside municipalities, the responsibility for burial grounds (1856), sewerage systems (1865), water supply, slaughter houses and food safety (1878) and social housing (1883).
Finally, the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 (which is chiefly remembered for the creation of democratically elected county councils) democratised municipal and Poor Law administration by extending their previously restricted franchises to all householders and occupants of a portion of a house, including women, for the first time. In addition, the property qualifications for municipal councillors were abolished, thus facilitating the emergence of working-class councillors.

Results of the revolution
The Irish Municipal Revolution had five main results. First, the modern system of urban government was established. Second, central government began to take an active role in regulating the local state. Third, the rising Catholic bourgeoisie gained control of a significant aspect of the administrative machine for the first time. Fourth, the urban local state was given a significant role in the provision of services such as the cleaning, paving and lighting of streets, social housing, technical education and public health. Finally, municipalities were the first elected bodies to come under nationalist control in the 1870s and 1880s, and were to play a pivotal role in advancing Home Rule and later Sinn Féin.
The result was the overthrow of Protestant ascendancy, and by 1900 the Catholic/nationalist propertied classes were firmly in command of boroughs, town councils and Poor Law unions all over the country. The machinery created by the Municipal Revolution continued to operate effectively until independence, and municipal government expanded in line with the increase in urbanisation. In 1911, 34.7% of the total population lived in towns with over 1,500 people, and 34.4% lived in towns with municipal government.

Municipal counter-revolution
All changed after independence, when centralisation and consolidation took hold, the powers of central government over local councils were vastly increased and the creation of new town councils virtually ceased. The comprehensive system of municipalities was allowed to atrophy, resulting in only 85 of the 170 cities and towns in the state with a population of 1,500 or more (50%) having municipal status in 2006, compared to 115 out of 139 (83%) in the whole island in 1911. The empowerment of citizens provided by the 1828 and 1854 acts was replaced by a

Kilkenny’s Carnegie Library, which was opened in 1910—an example of municipal government in action.

Kilkenny’s Carnegie Library, which was opened in 1910—an example of municipal government in action.

progressive disempowerment through the dissolution and abolition of existing municipalities, the failure to create new ones and the reluctance to extend the boundaries of the remaining ones. Finally, the municipalisation of services failed to progress in tandem with the increasing role of government, owing to the reluctance to use all local authorities, urban and rural alike, as points of delivery of services and the removal of many functions from urban to county councils. Although the proportion of the state’s population living in towns with a population of over 1,500 increased steadily, from 39% (1926) to 61% (2006), the number of urban authorities actually decreased, from 94 to 85 (since 1922 thirteen have been abolished and only four created). In 1911, 97% of those living in towns with a population of over 1,500 in all Ireland were resident in municipal areas, compared to only 51% in the Republic of Ireland in 2006.
The continued decline in the status of urban local government resulted in a democratic deficit in the cities and towns of Ireland, reduced the already weak democratic input into public life, contributed to the disconnection between government and people, and led to a greater lack of accountability. The result was calamitous. By the early 21st century the Irish administrative system had become synonymous with sclerosis and bureaucratic confusion, and had presided over periods of spectacular economic mismanagement and virtual collapse in the 1950s, 1980s and since 2008. A process of reform that commenced in 1990 resulted in some significant changes to the role of local government as service-provider but failed to improve the status of local authorities, particularly municipalities. The process of establishing a town council was also changed under the Local Government Act of 2001, and only towns with a population of 7,500 or upwards were eligible to apply (compared to the previous lower limit of 1,500 people under the act of 1854).

One of Dublin’s Civic Offices (constructed 1979–85), its troubled history a metaphor, perhaps, for the current broken state of the political and administrative system. (Ruth Johnson)

One of Dublin’s Civic Offices (constructed 1979–85), its troubled history a metaphor, perhaps, for the current broken state of the political and administrative system. (Ruth Johnson)

One of Dublin’s Civic Offices (constructed 1979–85), its troubled history a metaphor, perhaps, for the current broken state of the political and administrative system. (Ruth Johnson)

Semi-state bodies and quangos
In Europe it is common for major services such as health, social welfare and education to be delivered by local authorities. In Ireland these functions are the province of central government or national agencies. In the 1920s the Irish Free State invented a new form of government agency, the semi-state body; these operate in areas as diverse as electricity (ESB), transport (CIE), public broadcasting (RTÉ) and turf production (Bord na Móna). In the early 1990s the flow of EU funding into the country, particularly from the Structural Funds, led to the establishment of a plethora of local development agencies, such as City and County Enterprise Boards, LEADER Groups and Area-Based Partnerships. The Celtic Tiger era became notorious for the proliferation of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos), which by 2006 numbered a staggering 800. In all three cases, the modern Irish state chose to establish a new type of agency instead of utilising the existing local government structures.
Perhaps Ireland needs to move away from its obsession with what are perceived to be Anglophone models and to import an entirely new local government model from continental Europe. Such a system would result in the entire land area of the state being divided among a chain of meaningful, democratically elected municipal councils with large catchment areas, a wide range of functions and significant financial autonomy. Gradually, functions and staff would be transferred to them from central government and its quangos, resulting in the reduction of the disconnection between government and people, far greater levels of accountability, and the creation of a link between taxation and service provision. The current broken state of the political and administrative system demands a drastic break with the past, beginning at local level and drawing on the experience of some of the world’s most successful and inclusive societies. The alternative would appear to be the continued dissipation of the gains conferred by the Irish Municipal Revolution. HI

Matthew Potter is Fellow in the History of Urban Government in the Department of History, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. His The Municipal Revolution in Ireland. A handbook of urban government in Ireland since 1800 has just been published by Irish Academic Press.

Further reading:
M. Callanan & J.F. Keogan (eds), Local government in Ireland inside out (Dublin, 2003).
V. Crossman, Local government in nineteenth-century Ireland (Belfast, 1994).
M.E. Daly (ed.), County and town: 100 years of local government in Ireland. Lectures on the occasion of the Local Government Act 1898 (Dublin, 2001).
B.E. Dollery, J. Garcea & E.C. LeSage Jr (eds), Local government reform. A comparative analysis of advanced Anglo-American countries (Cheltenam, 2008).

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