IT HAS been part of the city’s heritage for over 800 years, but with the borough council now facing the axe, the Mayor of Kilkenny will champion a defensive effort in an attempt to save the historic institution.
Mayor Sean O’ hArgain received the unanimous, cross-party backing of the Kilkenny Borough Council members at a meeting on Monday night. Impassioned speeches from several councillors set the tone, and the mayor was given a mandate to fight for the council’s preservation.
Yesterday, he attended a meeting in Dublin with the mayors of Ireland’s five other borough councils, where they formulated a battle strategy to persuade Minister Phil Hogan not to swing the axe.
A number of local councillors have expressed serious reservations with the rationale behind the proposed cuts, and spoke of their fears for the future of the city without direct representation. The issue of Kilkenny’s ongoing status as a city was raised, as well as concerns over where revenue raised in the city, such as rates, would ultimately be directed in future.
Fine Gael Councillor David Fitzgerald, who also sits on the Kilkenny County Council, said that there was clearly a need for local Government reform – but not in this manner. He said many town councils had no control over setting rates or their own budget, but that was not the case in Kilkenny Borough Council.
“We have a budget of €11.5 million, and the borough boundary has acted as a ringfence around that money to keep it here,” he said.
Raid the funds
“Because of that, we have seen great investment and improvements in the city. My biggest fear is that the ringfence that has existed for 800 years will now be gone, and that the €11.5 million will be gone and future councillors and managers will be able to effectively raid the funds that the city generates and use them to plug the holes elsewhere.”
His concerns were echoed by other councillors, including Fianna Fail whip Cllr Joe Reidy.
Mayor O’ hArgain said he believed that people were slowly coming to the realisation of what the plan would eventually entail.
“I think this is part of a much wider anti-democratic agenda,” he said.
“I think so much of this document is from the Department of Environment officials and civil servants who sit in a bubble and have no idea what is actually going on.”
The mayor said that the role of the elected members was being undermined by central Government and this was the proposed plan was another step in that direction.
“In Ireland, we have the most centralised system of Government in the world, and now instead of making it better, we are making it worse.
“Every five years, we face the people and are accountable – with respect, the officials don’t. There has been a drift of power from the elected members to the executive, and I believe it has to stop.”
“What about our city status? We have the right to elect a mayor; it doesn’t say whether we will be called a city.”
A number of members, including the mayor, Cllr Brett and Cllr Fizgerald expressed anger at the attitude of some county councillors in their reaction to the cuts.
The current Cathaoirleach of Kilkenny County Council, Marie Fitzpatrick, who has been Mayor of Kilkenny on three occasions, has also voiced her opposition to the abolition of Kilkenny Borough Council. Mayor O’ hArgain has said that he intends to bring together the business interests, community interests and the civic interests in the city who would be impacted as a result of the proposals.
“I don’t believe that this is the end,” he said.
“I have a mandate here tonight. I believe this city needs a unit of Governmnet that can represent them, elected by them directly.”
With all elected members united in purpose, only county manager Joe Crockett did not disclose his position, when invited to do so.
“I don’t propose to express my views on Government policy,” he said.
“It would not be appropriate to give an opinion.”
What other members said (abridged):
Cllr John Coonan (FF): “When our city status was under threat, we stood together and won in convincing (then) Minister Dempsey that a mistake had been made. This is not in law yet; it is legislation. I don’t think we should accept it.”
Cllr Joe Reidy (FF): “Making this a ‘municipal district’ makes no sense. There is €6.5 million paid in rates here and there is now a real threat to that money being spent outside the city. The money from city rates should be invested back in the city. We are being punished for being efficient.”
Cllr Kathleen Funchion (SF): “This will mean people aren’t represented as well. People like the idea of cutting politicians, but this is cuts in staff as well; it will mean less services at a local level.”
Cllr Malcolm Noonan (GP): “It is populist right now to say ‘abolish councils’, but it will be to everyone’s detriment. We have a good borough council, and do things well with the resources available. I think this document has a lot of flaws, and I don’t think there was adequate consultation with members.”
Cllr Joe Malone (FF): “I support the decision to oppose this. We are all in it together, and I am honoured to serve on this borough council.”
Cllr Martin Brett (FG): “The minister is in a difficult position; if he was going to merge Waterford and Tipperary, he was going to have to do it in his own back yard or he would have been vilified. I am just wondering – what can we do?”
Cllr Jimmy Leahy (FG): “I don’t disagree with the most of what has been said here. Having only recently been co-opted onto it, I have a great affection for the borough council.”