Local democracy, a 'victim' of the Civil War
In its early years, a fledgling yet paternalistic Irish state was determined to wrest democratic control from local authorities, writes Dr Aodh Quinlivan, Department of Government and Politics, UCC
There was a pessimistic mood across local councils in the early months of 1923, and not just because of the continuing civil war. Another factor is what Diarmaid Ferriter has referred to as the ‘utter contempt’ that had quickly developed at central government level for local democracy.
Antrim-man, Ernest Blythe, had been appointed as Minister for Local Government and Public Health in 1922 by William T. Cosgrave and he wasted little time in stamping his authority. Officials of the Department of Local Government and Public Health were sent to audit and inspect many local councils and the difficulties of local authorities were viewed from the centre with exasperation. The main official in the department was the Secretary, Edward (known as E.P.) McCarron.
McCarron was a controversial appointment and he was greatly distrusted by many local authorities given that he was a former Local Government Board official under the British regime. The attitude of Blythe, McCarron and other senior officials in the Department of Local Government and Public Health was paternalistic and austere – they were interested in rectitude and efficiency rather than local democracy.
Blythe had steered the Local Elections Postponement Act 1922 through the Dáil in December, in the midst of the Civil War – the first of many times central government would defer local elections over the coming decades. The minister was also working on a significant piece of legislation, the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act. This legislation gave power to the minister to dissolve local authorities and replace them with a centrally-appointed Commissioner. Ultimately, despite criticisms, the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act was passed on 28 March 1923. The essence of the 1923 act was that the minister could dissolve a local authority having first ordered an inquiry into its performance. The reinstatement of the council, following a new election, would be decided by the minister with no timeframe indicated.
Dublin Corporation was in the firing line. It was not a Republican local authority and had remained impressively neutral during the Civil War. Nonetheless, it had antagonised the government whose view was that sovereignty and self-government were to be vested in central government, not spread or extended to local areas.
On 20 February 1924, E.P. McCarron wrote to the Town Clerk of Dublin, John J. Murphy, informing him that an inquiry into the performance of Dublin Corporation was to be held under section 12 of the 1923 Temporary Provisions Act. Under the chairmanship of Nicholas O’Dwyer (Chief Engineering Inspector in the Department of Local Government and Public Health), the Dublin inquiry sat for fourteen days in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in March and April 1924. The Irish Times and Evening Herald, both openly hostile to the Corporation, rejoiced in the inquiry. An editorial in the latter newspaper stated: ‘Jobbery and corruption are rampant in City Hall ….. the members of the Municipal Council are men of straw …… they are not fitted in any sense to hold authority or to administer any municipal department.’
At the end of the inquiry, Nicholas O’Dwyer produced an inconclusive report – nonetheless, it came as little surprise when Minister Séamus Burke announced that Dublin Corporation was to be dissolved, with its properties, powers and duties transferred to three government-appointed Commissioners from 20 May 1924. Predictably, the Evening Herald rejoiced and ran a front page headline of DUBLIN CORPORATION ABOLISHED. The Irish Times also welcomed the decision and lamented that the Corporation had been ‘inefficient and extravagant.’ The three Commissioners appointed to replace the Corporation were Séamus Murphy, Dr William Dwyer and Patrick Hernon – they were in charge until October 1930 when the Corporation was reinstated with Alfie Byrne elected Lord Mayor.
After the dissolution of Dublin Corporation, the Government’s attention turned to Cork. In 1924, Cork Corporation was a difficult council, divided on pro and anti-Treaty lines. The bitter mayoral election of January 1924, which anti-Treaty councillor Seán French won by one vote, did nothing to ease hostilities. Lord Mayor French struggled to unite the council and, with the Cork Progressive Association and the Cork Examiner calling for an inquiry into local administration, Minister Séamus Burke intervened. He ordered the holding of a public inquiry, starting on 26 August in Cork Courthouse.
There was controversy even before the inquiry commenced. Alderman Richard Beamish – a councillor, TD and the city’s largest ratepayer through Beamish & Crawford – was quoted in the local media as saying that the decision had already been made in Dublin to dissolve Cork Corporation. The inquiry, chaired once again by Nicholas O’Dwyer, sat for nine dramatic days, before packed public galleries at each session. Lord Mayor Seán French offered a staunch defence of the Corporation, highlighting the tremendous difficulties it had faced in recent years. These included the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain, the death on hunger strike of his successor, Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, and the burning of much of the city, including City Hall. Interestingly, the Lord Mayor also asserted that the people of Cork were partly to blame if local government in the city was not as effective as it should be – ‘A real and serious attempt should be made to educate the citizens in local services and to instill into them an interest in local government bodies and generally in local affairs.’
As was the case in Dublin, Nicholas O’Dwyer wrote a bland report which did not contain a firm recommendation. However, confirming the assertion made by Alderman Richard Beamish in advance of the inquiry, Cork Corporation was duly dissolved. The government appointed Philip Monahan as Commissioner and he held power from October 1924 to March 1929 when the Corporation returned following local elections. Once again, Seán French was elected Lord Mayor.
One advantage of the Commissionership years in Dublin and Cork was that it gave the government the breathing space to formulate proposals for the reform of local government. Chief amongst these was the introduction of the management system, whereby power would be shared between an appointed City Manager and the elected council. The Cork City Management Act, 1929 was soon followed by the Local Government (Dublin) Act, 1930. During a heated debate in Dáil Éireann on the Cork legislation, Seán French TD – Lord Mayor of Cork when the Corporation was dissolved, and now a Fianna Fáil deputy – argued that he wanted ‘a City Manager appointed and not a city master.’ The country’s first City Manager was duly appointed in Cork in 1929 – none other than Philip Monahan who would stay in the role until 1959. A year later, Gerald Sherlock, the former Town Clerk, was appointed as Dublin City Manager and he retained the position until 1936.
A case can be made that local democracy in Ireland was a victim of the Civil War and the first Free State government. The Cosgrave government was determined to reduce the autonomy of local authorities and, regrettably, intense centralism remains a dominant theme in Ireland today. It is worth noting that the power of dissolution (now called the power of suspension) remains on the statute books and was contained in the Local Government Act, 2001 which codified and updated all previous local government legislation. Mark Callanan refers to the power as a ‘nuclear option’ and comments: ‘The ability of one elected branch of government to effectively overturn the results of a local election and suspend another elected branch is a serious and, some might say, a dangerous power.’
Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer in UCC’s Department of Government and Politics and he is the Director of the Centre for Local and Regional Governance (CLRG). He is a member of the Expert Advisory Group supporting the work of the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly. Amongst his book publications are Dissolved – The remarkable story of how Cork lost its Corporation in 1924 (2017) and Vindicating Dublin – The story behind the controversial dissolution of the Corporation in 1924 (2021).
– This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 –