Irish citizens feel excluded from public life. It is widely felt that the wishes of the public are ignored by politicians, Councils and Government. One of the consequences of this is the low percentage of people who actually vote, people lack confidence in the process.
The Housing Rights & Reform Alliance is proposing to make public consultation meaningful and binding.
Outside of elections politicians seem to do as they please, we continually see policy introduced that is widely objected to. The efforts to privatise our water in recent years was a glaring example, eventually massive public protest turned back that attempt at imposing policy. In Cork the Boycott Irish Water campaign collected 24,000 names on a petition against water privatisation, but City Hall ignored it.
However, mechanism to prevent Government or Councils from imposing their will are few.
The process of public consultation does exist, but it has little or no affect.
Council’s engage in public consultation, it is required on planning permissions, changes to zoning or land usage etc. All major development projects go through a phase whereby detailed plans are published and members of the public are invited to make submissions.
Most consultations attract little interest but every so often a red-hot issue comes up, causing massive public concern; such as the incinerator at Ringaskiddy, the new plastics factory in Skibbereen, upgrade of the N28 to motorway, the OPW’s Quay Walls scheme for city flood defences and more.
There were huge numbers of submissions made by members of the pubic on each of these issues, mainly to object, but the schemes were approved anyway.
It seems that public consultation places no obligation on either Councils or planning authorities to act according to the wishes of the people, they are only obliged to listen.
In each of the red-hot issues mentioned the communities involved have been forced to resort to very expensive High Court appeals to defend their interests – in Ringaskiddy the community are on their 3rd High Court appeal, all financed by themselves.
This highlights the short-coming, why is public consultation so meaningless?
The role of Local Government is defined in our Constitution, it is to provide “a forum for the democratic representation of local communities” (article 28A). Surely this implies that a mechanism should exist through which the people can express their will on particular issues, and that this should decide things?
A solution faces us: Cork city voters are being asked by plebiscite on May 24th if we wish to have a directly elected Lord Mayor, we are encouraging a YES vote, it will give some badly needed accountability.
This process of plebiscite should be adopted to decide major issues of public concern, such as mentioned above.
The Housing Rights & Reform Alliance proposes that:
- Citizens should be able to initiate a plebiscite, maybe by collecting the names of 10% of the voters in any electoral area.
- A simple majority of Council members should be able to initiate one and that the result should be binding.
This would be a powerful measure to strengthen democracy and it should be used for national issues too – the detail on how to do this can be discussed but we feel strongly that there must be a mechanism through which the people can decide critical issues, and that such decisions are binding.