Like Deputy Andrews I want to address a few observations to the House on the postponement of the local elections and I want to take up a few of the issues and the spurious, inconsistent and contradictory arguments put forward by Deputy Shatter. I mean no disrespect to him, but sometimes he reminds me of a bee who likes to sing and then move out of the way before somebody strikes. I regret that Deputy Shatter has left the House after making what to me were stinging remarks that were totally out of context in this debate. It is only right that the record be put straight in relation to some of these remarks, particularly as they were directed to local government and had little or nothing to do with the debate here.
We are faced in this House with a decision by the Government to postpone the local elections for one year, we are told, and we are given the reason that local government needs reform. This Government in a very conscientious and just manner are to set about bringing this reforms to a conclusion or to a stage that would enable them to launch the local elections next year. The credibility of this has been dealt with by a number of speakers on this side and I want to deal with it again. Of course, everybody on this side of the House agrees with the need for reform of local authorities. Most people who have had any dealings in any capacity, as Deputy, councillor, or both, with local authorities, committees, decisions and with confusion as to jurisdiction — which I experience daily in my constituency — are aware of the acute need for reform. I would go along with any Government, as do all Deputies here, in that we acknowledge the need for reforms, but a number of questions arise in relation to this.
The first question I want to put to the Government is how they can seriously and sincerely tell us on this side that they are postponing the local elections for one year because in that time they will have undertaken and completed the enormous task of the reform of the local authorities. I do not believe for a minute that that is realistic or sincere or intended to be sincere. As Deputy Andrews and others have said, this is clearly and blatantly a decision by the Government to funk the local authority elections, to opt out from the wrath of the electorate. Unfortunately, they must face the electorate in the European elections and the by-election. We are convinced that we have enough evidence over the past few weeks to suggest that, should the Government have decided to take the local elections this year, in many places they would have been very seriously eroded in terms of strength. Nobody in any organisation or agency or the media would disagree with that. The evidence pouring in through opinion polls and other sources points out clearly that the Government would face a very serious and rejecting decision from the electorate in local authority areas this time around if they had had the courage to take them on. Obviously they lack that courage. They have shown moral cowardice in this instance.
I see a number of underlying reasons why the Government should postpone the local elections. Primarily, at present they enjoy a majority in many local authority areas, and that is fair enough. They took that on the basis of the circumstances of 1979. They also enjoy a majority on the General Council of County Councils and the General Council of County Committees. Because they are unable to grapple with the national issues in a convincing way they know that those majorities will be taken from them should they give the electorate an opportunity to decide. It seems to be an attitude of "what we have we told". That reminds me of other countries and other decisions taken in the past in relation to problems in Ireland. The Government have been seriously irresponsible in this instance. I reject out of hand the argument put forward that it is in the best interests of local democracy.
One of the first steps the Government took in relation to local democracy by way of introducing a water charge was to give unto the county and city managers the managerial function which enabled a county or city manager anywhere in the country to overrule decisions by local councillors. The Government came into office on the back of a campaign which talked about liberal reform and greater democracy. I do not know how anybody who knows anything about democracy would tell us that this decision was democratic or how it could promote democracy, locally or nationally. Very unfairly the Government threw on to the laps of county managers the decision they were unable to deal with themselves.
This has a more serious aspect. The people have their say at local election time. This gives them the opportunity to thrust on to people locally identifiable the power at local level to exercise those functions and to implement decisions. With one fell swoop this Government decided to withdraw that. This is a clear negation of local democracy, a denial of the right of the electorate who in 1979 voted in councillors in every county and local authority area. I am convinced that the Government are acutely aware of the hazards that this decision has presented them with, therefore they decided that no opportunity would be given to the electorate in June 1984 to tell them clearly that they think about them.
To come back to the reasons the Government have given for the postponement of the local elections, namely reform of local authorities, everybody in this House and most local representatives throughout the country would agree with the need for reform. The decisions of the Government are totally inadequate in terms of financial provision to deal with the very serious problems. There is considerable confusion about functions, areas of discrimination, and the allocation of very limited funds. As public representatives we hear daily of unemployment problems that have arisen as a result of local authority decisions. Daily, too, we are requested by people who have lost their jobs to make representations to Government to allow for transfer of funds from the Department of Social Welfare to environmental and local authority schemes. If the Government were serious in their approach to problems within local authorities, and if they were serious in their approach to national problems, they would take up that case seriously. I am not the first to voice this opinion. Public representatives both here and elsewhere have brought it to the attention of Government but their calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears. I am not convinced that some years would be involved in implementing the change. The transfer of funds could take place expeditiously if there were the necessary goodwill and commitment on the part of the Government to such transfer, but obviously that is not the case.
There are some who will say that there are no jobs in local authorities and that consequently there is no work in these bodies. Any Deputy or councillor representing the greater Dublin region, for instance, is acutely aware of the very high level of unemployment in the area and of the need for jobs in local authorities. We are all aware, too, of the need for renewal of the city and of the need for a followup to the process that we in Government started by way of urban renewal in Dublin.
There is enormous potential for reform of local government by way of involving and engaging other Departments. Such reform would be far more meaningful than the reform talked of in some of the statements and attitudes that have emanated from the other side of the House. If we are to tackle the whole question of local authorities we must tackle it at all levels and not only in terms of houses in the greater Dublin region. We must tackle, too, the question of the environment and of urban problems in general.
Of course, we must tackle also the problem of infrastructure. It was interesting to note a recent statistic which revealed that it is normal practice for roads in urban and rural areas to be resurfaced every nine years. I understand now that resurfacing is likely to take place as infrequently as every 27 years. A country which needs the most rapid possible development of its infrastructure cannot tolerate much longer that sort of situation. We should be very seriously setting out to ensure that our infrastructure is kept to the highest possible standard and is developed further so as to allow for industrial expansion.
I am very concerned about recent decisions which seem to underpin the decision of the Government to postpone the local elections. I am very concerned about the whole matter of managerial function. It has in a very frightening way undermined local democracy. It is interesting to hear Deputy Shatter refer to events taking place or about to take place in the best interest of democracy and to hear him allege that Deputies on this side of the House are trying to filibuster in regard to the local elections or that we are opposing for the sake of opposing. Perhaps if the Deputy were honest and sincere with himself in relation to what is happening he would acknowledge that the decision of the Government is undemocratic. I would equate the circumstances that many local authorities find themselves in by way of committee and general meetings with the situation of that long-established and honoured body, the ICA, to whom I do not intend any disrespect in making this remark. The ICA create a social atmosphere for their members and keep a benevolent eye on their cares. The real power that local authorities could yield by way of decisions, of policy and so on seems to be gone. This year we have witnessed in many instances local authorities trying to arrive at decisions regarding their estimates while councillors who are in the majority, whether they are made up of the three main political parties or otherwise, are overruled by county and city managers. It is clear that the voice of councillors is not being heard. I submit that Deputy Shatter's references to the absence of democracy are indeed relevant in the context of his party's decision.
A case put forward by speakers on the other side and again by the Deputy, to whom unfortunately I must refer in order to set the record straight since he made a number of allegations that are totally unfounded, is that our attitude is to camouflage the difficulties that we were experiencing as a party in facing the electorate. We are prepared at any minute, on the basis of a change of attitude on the part of the Minister, to face the electorate at local elections in the same way as we are prepared to face them in the European elections and in the by-election. The virtues of credibility, sincerity, integrity and democracy are being left aside so far as the Government are concerned. One wonders what the reaction of the electorate will be when they discover that liberal reforms and the improvements in the democratic process are being thrown out the window. I am convinced that the answer will be given clearly on June 14.
Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,