Local government, a tenner a mile, and why I want to buy Phil Hogan a pint

The Burke brothers fixing Fermoy Weir in 1960.

The Burke brothers fixing Fermoy Weir in 1960.

I used to be secretary of Fermoy Rowing Club. Despite having never rowed, I was involved in the club for eighteen years. By necessity, I and other members of the club became involved in a campaign to save the weir on the local river. Killing the weir, as vested interests wanted, would kill the Rowing Club too.

Clashing with government, local, national and European, eventually cost me a position I loved.

I still resent that.

I also resent, deeply, that the local councillors elected to supervise our civil servants have always stayed cosy with those same officials just to make sure their own expenses get paid. This relationship reached its nadir during the Tiger years, when one Fermoy town councillor claimed €93 for the 9.4 mile journey to Mitchelstown.

Anyway, the high point of our struggle to save Fermoy Weir came in 2009 when we secured what would turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory: acting on the clarification we had secured from the EU, the Irish government, in the form of then-Minister Conor Lenihan, (a man I helped fish out of the Blackwater once,) handed the problem back to the serial incompetents who caused that problem in the first place.

The whole sad tale is here at http://fermoyweir.wordpress.com/ and it has has yet to be resolved. Suffice to say, I’m no fan of Phil Hogan but I’d buy him a pint for doing away with Fermoy Town Council. I wrote this in the local paper when one prominent councillor accused me of “constant sniping”.

I thank The Avondhu for granting me the right to reply to Councillor Michael Hanley. I write this in a personal capacity.

Fermoy Rowing Club is a vital part of the town and synonymous with the Blackwater. Without sponsorship and support from the local community we could not survive. Dating from 1884, we had an earlier incarnation as the Robert Emmett Brotherhood when we took to the water to the irritation of the occupying British Army.

With over eighty athletes under the age of eighteen and a fantastic group of Novices and Seniors on the water, we are moving also into Adaptive Rowing, a discipline which allows people with disabilities to take advantage of the sport. Like all of Fermoy, we love the river. For training we depend on that glorious 3-mile stretch of river from Barnane to Castlehyde; that’s why we fought so hard to save Fermoy Weir. Take out the weir and you kill our club.

I thank Cllr Hanley for his kind words. I hope he knows that I hold him in the highest regard. He has given his life’s work to the betterment of Fermoy and like every other member of the Council he has only the best interests of the town at heart. In his Urbe et Orbi address, he calls the Fermoy Town Council “severely restricted in its capacity to deliver prompt results on every issue”. You can sing that, Michael.

What is the point of the Council? That’s not a cheap shot, but a genuine question. Why do we elect councillors and what do they do?

My understanding is that they have some policy-making power but their main responsibility is overseeing the running of the town by the Town Executive. Say what you like about our politicians but at least we get to evaluate their performance every five years and, if we choose, to fire them. Unlike the Executive. Some councillors will say privately that they are terribly frustrated that they can’t achieve anything because the Executive holds all the real power.

Last December the Town Council was given a year to repair the weir. They promptly spent the next six months trying to persuade the Minister to pay for the job. Although this failed, the Executive now says it’s all sorted out and the work will be done as part of the still untendered Phase II of the Flood Plan. The Minister’s office disputes this and says they haven’t received correspondence from the Executive. Who to trust? Local or national government? There’s a prisoner’s dilemma for you…

Cllr Hanley says the weir repair and ongoing maintenance bills will have to be footed by local ratepayers. “Hit me now with the ratepayer in me arms”, but he’s absolutely right. The problem with his point is this isn’t a sudden situation, foisted on the Council by uncaring external forces. The weir has belonged to the town for decades and successive Councils ignored their responsibility, causing the current problem.

You’d wonder, are there are any other surprises floating around out there?

Like the outstanding €15,000 VAT bill for pay-parking. Townspeople will get caught for this too. The Council can write to John Gormley all they want: they’ll be told that if a private business forgot to pay its VAT bill they’d know all about it pretty quickly. Somebody in the Town Hall dropped that ball too. Simple question: was it the councillors or the Executive?

Cllr Hanley makes the extraordinary remark that he is concerned with headlines about the weir distracting the town from “the very serious unemployment situation and the survival of our business community”. Those of us struggling to make ends meet from day-to-day really aren’t that easily distracted. But thanks for the concern.

Assuming, though, there won’t be a problem with salmon trapped at the weir between here and February, when the Executive promises, somewhat vaguely, that all of our problems will end, suppose we all agree not to mention the weir in that time. How many jobs will that save?

Maybe the local media should be controlled by the Council lest criticism of our Dear Leaders causes a flight of capital. The international bond markets could get spooked by “constant sniping”, so perhaps we can all stay on-message by establishing a Communications Authority in Pearse Square. It really must be awful for our representatives to have to live in a democracy with a free press. Perhaps they could emigrate?

Yes, criticism must be tiresome, especially given the way some councillors react to it, like a Taoiseach with a sore head. How do you think we feel? We’ve dealt with fifteen councillors, four TDs, three senators, four MEPs, five ministers and the Environment DG of the EU Commission. I’d buy Brian Cowen a pint just to complete the set.

Yet nothing has changed, even though councillors accuse us of raising doomsday scenarios and the Executive says everything’s fine. Salmon still have trouble getting through Fermoy, Inland Fisheries Ireland still wants to remove the weir, the EU is still watching, the Department still favours a rock ramp pass, an election could set us right back to the start, the deadline is blown and Fermoy Town Council still hasn’t fixed, as Cllr Hanley might say, the damn thing.

Somebody in the Town Hall is not on top of things.

Councillors come in for a lot of criticism, not all of it unfair, but every one of them is an intelligent, capable and thoroughly decent person who wants to see the town thrive. They have shown over the past year that they can overcome often bitter personal differences for the greater good. It can’t be beyond their wit to realise that, as our elected representatives, they have the legal and moral authority to remind the Executive that they too must be accountable.

So: no more back-chat from the likes of me, then. We’ll emerge next Spring to the strains of Vivaldi and the weir will be fixed.

Everything’s fine.

It is, isn’t it?

Donal O’Keeffe.

The Avondhu 30/9/2010

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