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Change and upheaval nothing new for Kildare’s local councils

Local newspapers throughout the land are this week reacting to the news of upheavals among the town councils of Ireland.  According to headlines the eighty town councils in the country are to be abolished and replaced by a new type of council known as a “municipal district council” which will cover both the towns and rural areas. There will be four or five of the new councils in each county. The County Councils such as Kildare County Council remain intact and will continue to be the lead local authority in each county. 
This is not the first time that the map of Irish local government has been reconfigured but a striking feature down through the centuries is the consistency of the County as a unit of administration. In the context of Kildare for example, the present shape of the county can be traced to 1297 when it was mapped out by the Normans who had brought the concept of counties with them from their homelands in Europe.
This County unit of administration was given its present democratic character in the closing years of the 19th century when a Westminster parliament translated a scheme for local government to Ireland. The 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act  was an extraordinary piece of legislation which established the basis for the network of elected County Councils which has remained a notably consistent feature of the civic map of Ireland.
The 1898 Local Government Act achieved breakthroughs on many fronts. It extended the right of voting in local government elections to all householders and, for the first time, opened up the vote to women. It was not a perfect franchise; women, for instance, had to be over thirty years and while they could vote they could not stand as county council candidates. However the extension of the franchise to all householders gave ‘ordinary’ people the right to participate for the first time in choosing their own representatives.
In organisational terms the 1898 Act redrew the local authority map of County Kildare. The Grand Jury — an elitist body which had run county business for centuries — and its subsidiary Baronies were abolished as units of local government. They were replaced by the elected County Council on the same County boundary but, crucially, elected by the people of the County through a regulated voting process.
Similarly the Boards of Guardians who had been formed in the 1830s to administer the workhouses at Athy, Celbridge and Naas were transformed into newly created Rural District Councils for sanitation and housing purposes The Boards which had been set up as poor relief authorities in the years before the Great Famine (1845-47) had opened the door to participation in local democracy; while property ownership was a qualification to vote for Board members they at least had allowed some middle-class farmers and businesspeople to come through into public life. However their role as a forum for local democracy was to prove minor compared to the excitement generated by the advent of the new County and Rural District councils in 1899 where, for the first time, every household in the county had a stake in choosing its local representatives.
As well as the County and the Rural District Councils there were also three town councils in Co. Kildare. Two of them, Athy and Naas, had their roots in royal charters granted by English monarchs in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their democratic existence dated from the middle of the 19th century when votes were granted to the ratepayers and, subsequently, Town Commissions were elected in both towns. Newbridge was to join their ranks as a town commission in 1865.
Since then there have been changes in the terminology and the status of the town local authorities.  Naas for instance was upgraded to Urban District Council status in 1900. This status remained even though the title was changed by law to Town Council in 2002.  The reform announcement last week will bring another change of title and capacity which will see a type of merger between the town council and the county council electoral area to form a new unit of local government to be known as the “municipal district council”. 
Whatever change might occur in the system of local government in Kildare over the coming months the County’s town authorities hold two records in the story of Irish urban government. Firstly, Leixlip Town Council is the most recently created of the 80 town councils in Ireland having been established in 1988. It looks too as if it will hold the record for the shortest lived with the Liffeyside town likely to be affected by the changes underway.
And the second Kildare footnote to Irish local government history is established by the county town with Naas Urban District Council having been the last local authority to have its councillors removed from office for refusing to adopt a budget. From 1985 to 1988 the nine town councilors were replaced by a single Commissioner – one Mr. Dan Turpin. No other council in Ireland has had its members removed from office in the three decades since. 
Thus as far as Kildare is concerned change and upheaval are nothing new in the realms of urban government. Series no: 302.

Change and upheaval are nothing new in the realms of Kildare’s local councils, writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series, no. 302

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