The controversy concerning the boundary between Cork City and County and whether the two should be merged is the inevitable outcome of longstanding defects in Ireland’s local government system.  Failure to address these defects means that such controversies will continue to recur in the future.

The two main problems are the lack of a regional tier of government in Ireland and the territorial configuration of local authorities.

As regards the latter, Ireland inherited from Britain the current system which separates urban centres from their surrounding rural hinterlands.  This creates difficulties where urban centres provide public services (e.g. education, health and transport services) which extend into these hinterlands.   More immediately, problems arise where population growth causes urban centres to expand beyond their legal boundaries and overspill into adjoining jurisdictions.  These problems are exacerbated by the increasing tendency of commercial activities such as retailing, warehousing, factories and offices to locate on the fringes of urban areas.

As a result, these activities are frequently located in the jurisdictions of adjoining county councils to which they pay commercial rates.  Since these rates are a major source of local government funding, not surprisingly there is resistance on the part of county councils to attempts by town and city councils to extend their boundaries to encompass the commerical activities in question.

The absence of any provision in legislation for periodic reviews and adjustment of urban boundaries, combined with the inability of the Irish political process to take hard decisions, means that boundary adjustments have been a rare occurrence. This explains why there has been no extension of Cork City’s boundary since 1965.  In the intervening period, the population of the city’s built-up area lying outside the city boundary grew from just 3,000 in 1966 to 83,000 in 2016.

This situation does not arise in continental European countries where the municipalities which constitute the basic unit of local government embrace both urban centres and their rural hinterlands.  The latter basically comprise those zones from which the centres draw commuting workers, weekly shoppers and those attending second level education.  This is a much more sensible arrangement than that which prevails in Ireland.  The combination of urban centre and hinterland represents a “natural” unit as regards planning and the provision of services.  There is no artificial division between the two which would require, but may not receive, regular adjustment.

Continental European countries also have a regional tier of government which is responsible for functions with a regional scope such as hospitals, higher education institutions, regional economic development and transport planning.  Municipalities, by contrast, are responsible for everyday local services such as primary and secondary education, social and environmental services, and primary healthcare.  These regions are normally based on the major regional cities and their hinterlands.  In this case the hinterlands comprise the zones from which clients are drawn to avail of the higher level services provided by the central cities, such as specialist health care, shops and professional services.

Ireland has no regional tier of government.  For those who argue that Ireland is too small for this, it is worth pointing out that Denmark, which is just 60% the size of the Republic of Ireland, is divided into five popularly-elected regional councils which were created as recently as 2007.  In Ireland, local government is now based exclusively on the counties, which are too big for effective municipal government and too small to have a regional remit (with the possible exception of Cork).  The Irish counties were all created in the Middle Ages, and have little relevance to the modern structure of the economy and population.

Ireland is unique in the developed world in not having carried out a profound reform of its local government structure in the last 100 years.  Ireland should abolish the counties as administrative units and replace them with the local/municipal and regional structures which obtain elsewhere and work well.  This does not necessarily entail the destruction of the strong county identity which most Irish people possess.  Other countries have been able to preserve these historical identities in conjunction with administrative reform which focuses on more efficient planning and provision of services for the population at large.

In the case of Cork, the choice should not be between merging the city and county councils or keeping them separate.  Cork City provides both regional services serving the entire county and more localised services serving its immediate hinterland.  The former functions should be transferred to the County Council, acting as a regional entity, and the latter retained by the City Council, acting as a municipal entity.  At the same time, the municipal functions carried out by the County Council should be devolved to the county’s main towns, such as Youghal, Mallow and Skibbereen, along with their adjacent hinterlands.

Analysis of commuting patterns conducted in the Maynooth University Geography Department indicates that a municipal district focused on Cork City and defined along European lines would be much more extensive than the expanded boundary proposed by the Cork Expert Advisory Report.  It would extend to Kinsale in the south, Coachford to the west, Grenagh to the north and Carrigtohill to the east.  The rest of the county would be divided into eleven municipal districts focused on the county’s main towns.  In some cases the hinterlands of these towns extend into neighbouring counties.

Ireland’s system of local government is long overdue major reform.  The fact that this has not occurred is linked to the very limited range of functions performed at this level in Ireland compared with other European countries.  As a result, local government lacks the status required to impel the central state to take serious action to address its profound structural defects.  In this respect, badly-needed change in the territorial configuration of local government should go hand-in-hand with wide-ranging devolution of functions to the local and regional levels.

Proinnsias Breathnach

A version of this paper appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 18 last.