What makes a likely entrant into politics? When someone describes me as being a politician simply because I am a member of a Town Council, I protest. I contend that I am not a politician, merely a resident of a community who wants to use her skills as an engineer to benefit her community. It seemed in 2004 when I first ran for election as a non-party candidate that being a member of my local Town Council was the most effective way to do this.
My father had been a local authority civil engineer for most of his working life. His were the days of walking up hillsides to find clean water sources that could serve towns and villages around the country. It seemed like an attractive and beneficial way to spend one’s career. But I soon learned that service delivery had advanced somewhat and although I was grateful for my training in civil engineering, found my niche in the environmental sphere. The world had moved on so much since the 1930s and 40s that rather than deliver service, the crucial role was now to deliver the earth from the excesses that abundant services had brought. I specialised in waste prevention and treatment, improving water quality and renewable energy.
Engineers and technology are generally comfy bedfellows. But technology and society seemed to have a new relationship, and one that I was not always comfortable with. Perhaps it was easier to make positive change by advancing the role of good technology. So with qualifications and enthusiasm under my belt, I entered the world of consultancy, firstly within a large, well-established firm and later as a self-employed engineer. Some great work was achieved. Much of the European environmental legislation was beginning to kick in. The field of sludge management and its relationship to water quality was at embryonic stage. I was involved in researching and writing management plans for local authorities, policy documents for government and legislative reviews for the European Commission. It was fast-paced, exciting and all-encompassing.
I envy women who are able to dovetail babies and self-employment. Just a few years into running my own business, I found myself with a one-year old and expecting my second child. Guilt was my predominant emotion as I struggled to give what were always insufficient hours to work and family. I finished my last project whilst in labour, handed it to my husband for delivery to County Hall and, half an hour later, my baby was delivered. So draining had the ongoing effort of dividing my time been that self-employment was over, at least for the foreseeable future.
The self-employed rarely have the luxury of statutory maternity leave. So I temporarily buried myself in the delights of my little son and new baby daughter as I had not been able to do the first time round. We lived in a little house at the very heart of the pretty village of Monkstown, spending lazy hours each day throwing stones and catching sandhoppers on the shores of my beloved Cork Harbour.
I was only remotely interested when a neighbour knocked at the door one evening, her arms full with folders holding a copy of a planning application for an incinerator proposed for Ringaskiddy. She asked me to help the community to oppose its construction. Confusion was my overwhelming emotion. Incineration as a technology has its place; but was the proposal for Ringaskiddy the correct technology in the best location? In any event, my daughter was only six months old. Reluctantly I took the folders. Two weeks later, having worked through them both forwards and backwards, there was little doubt to me but that the proposed project was fundamentally unsustainable. I pledged my support to the community.
Thereafter began what could only be described as a crash course into the heroism of a community taking on the established system. It was 2004. Ireland was moving fast and bigger was better. Sleepless nights poring over technical information, holiday time lost, endless coffee mornings to pay for legal and scientific expertise, extended family services called in for childminding, new babies born, loved ones lost, new friendships forged. In that same year there was a local election. I was asked to run for a seat on our local Town Council. I had little interest in the political system and less in political parties. But I had tremendous interest in the beautiful area in which my children would grow up on the shores of the harbour and plenty of experience which might benefit it. I agreed to run as an independent candidate.
Ten years on and another local election later, I still sit around the Passage West/Monkstown Town Council table. In that time, much has been achieved, direction has been agreed but there is so much more to do. I was fortunate that our Town Council of nine elected members rarely permitted political alliances to govern our round-table meetings. The value of our position lay in our close relationship between the community and Cork County Council’s Area Office.
I saw at first hand the influence that ill-thought out policies backed by insufficient funding can have on a community. These policies always originate at government level and filter down through the local authority, who by poor management frequently compound the problems those policies create. And yet, at the most basic level of town maintenance, a community working co-operatively with a local authority can move mountains. The funding into the enhancement of the old railway line running along the harbour from Hop Island to Passage West is a case in point. That special funding received from government and implemented through Cork County Council has brought thousands of visitors to our area either by bicycle or on foot. But when those visitors enter Passage West town, there are virtually no services to enhance their experience. Operational funds to local authorities have been slashed by government and the consequent punitive rates imposed by a cash-strapped County Council mean that businesses in our small town merely 10 minutes from the busy suburb of Douglas at best struggle to survive.
On the other hand, community cohesion and vision has begun to enhance the visitor experience in our town. Four years ago, I was intimately involved in the start-up of a Tidy Towns group to work in Passage West and Glenbrook. The group collaborates closely with the Carrigaline Area Office of the County Council. The Area Office’s work is close to the ground and they understand how best to dovetail with the local voluntary work.
The message is clear: the lower the level of governance, the better it works. Yet there is much local criticism of what our Town Council achieved. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, as a former Town Commission, our Town Council had virtually no powers and very little funding. Without autonomy and money, it is difficult to deliver. Secondly, it had no staff. Our Town Clerk and Town Manager were deployed from their full-time positions in County Hall to attend to meetings in Passage West/Monkstown. Deployment of a staff member for even one or two regular days each week would have considerably speeded up the rate of work. And thirdly, many running for election were driven to do so, not by their loyalty to their area, but by their affiliation to a political party. Town Councils are the nursery school of future TDs. That is of course not to say that all those around the Town Council table representing a party were not interested in the town. But whether they would have put themselves forward for election to a non-political, voluntary Community Council is strongly open to question.
Central government has decided that all Town Councils are now to be abolished in the new system of local government reform. Passage West/Monkstown Town Council will cease to exist after May 30th. Running for election to Cork County Council was a decision I agonised over. The task as an independent candidate is phenomenal. The redrawn electoral boundaries mean there is an electorate of 51,000 to connect with. A massive electorate suggests massive budget. With five young children and having come through four years of family depending on my husband’s self-employed business, extensive spending was simply not an option.
Then one day, a prominent member of one of the larger political parties telephoned me to ask whether I might consider running for the local elections on their behalf. It was well known that I had never any interest in or part of any political party. I declined the request. But it nonetheless made me realise that I cannot waste the skills I have to offer. Too much needs to be done in local government to sit on the sideline and moan. There needs to be positive engagement between all the communities within the 51,000 electorate and Cork County Council. If there is not, they will lose the identity that makes them strong. Building up communities is the first step to devolving governance to the people. And that is the only way we will create a content and fulfilled society, realising Ireland’s vast potential.