The five-member delegation from Mayo County Council which met with the Oireachtas Committee for Environment, Heritage and Local Government left Government buildings on Tuesday night happy that they had put forward their best case for the retention of the new Mayo County Development Plan. The issue of the plan has rumbled on since it was adopted in April unanimously by the 31 elected members of Mayo County Council, with a number of submissions and changes put forward by the Minister for Environment, John Gormley, and his department and issued on his behalf by County Manager Des Mahon.
The five-member committee of Councillors Paddy McGuinness, Al McDonnell, Damien Ryan, Harry Walsh and Cathaoirleach Joe Mellett received widespread support from a number of Oireachtas members from areas as different as Dublin, the Mid West and Kerry. The committee also received support from six of the seven Mayo Oireachtas members who spoke out on their behalf in the meeting. While the Development plan was the main issue being debated before the committee, which also received a presentation from a three-person team from the Department of Environment (DOE ), the paring away of the autonomous reserved functions of local authorities was an issue that provoked great concern from the large number of speakers who addressed the meeting over the course of its four-hour session.
Deputy Padraig McCormack asked the DOE delegation, “So you’re saying that even after the councillors adopt and accept a plan, it’s the Minister’s decision, where does that leave the reserved functions of the members now?” His point was echoed by Dublin based Labour TD Joanna Tuffy, who told the meeting “So it’s the Minister’s way or the highway, where is the room for discussion between the Minister his department and the elected Councillors.?” While Waterford-based Senator Paudie Coffey weighed in on the issue, saying, “This is going to be a national issue very soon.” Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick also had a cut at the actions of the Minister and his department, stating, “The Minister may have been very high-handed with his directive here, without consulting any one of the elected councillors. There is no, one cap fits all policy for every town or county.” While Senator Ned O’Sullivan pointed out that “Are we to take it now that if the Minister doesn’t like a plan and he goes ‘to hell with it’. In that case you might as well do the plan yourselves. It’s clear that this will not be a plan by the people of Mayo but a plan by the department. There is a real fear everywhere that this could become the blueprint for everywhere in the country”. Senator Joe O’Reilly stated that, “If this is imposed we might as well turn the light out on rural Ireland.”
Committee chairperson Sean Flemming asked the department officials how many times a section 31 order has been imposed by a Minster in relation to a development plan. This order allows the Minister of Environment to issue a variation to a development plan, which will be implemented either by being passed by the councillors or by managerial order by the County Manager. Since taking office in 2007 ,the DOE officials told the meeting Minister Gormley had issued variation orders on five different development plans, while there were only two such orders issued between 2003 and 2006.
The Mayo members of the Oireachtas all gave their support to the members of Mayo County Council, with John O’Mahony TD saying that this was “an issue that had unified the members of Mayo County Council and there was no political divide amongst any of the members.” While Fianna Fáil deputy Dara Calleary said, “There is this talk of rural policies and planning, but these small towns and villages have been there for a long time and they want to stay there. There are shops, schools, church’s and communities which have developed over time and the people who live and grew up there want to stay there.” Deputy Beverley Flynn told the meeting “Just to put it into perspective, the council took on board 75 per cent of the suggestions in the managers report and the only reason that they made amendments and changed things was because they know and can see what’s going on at the ground level in Mayo.” Both of the Seanad members Senators Paddy Burke and John Carty also weighed in behind their local colleges. Fine Gael TD Michael Ring led a scathing attack on the rolling back of local democracy as he saw it. “It’s a very simple issue, it’s about democracy. No official ever stood for election. It’s very simple, the members of the council made a judgement on this plan, they believe it’s right, but if it’s not the people of Mayo will let them know next time they go to the polls, not officials who don’t have to go before the people next June. I blame the officials, not just the Minister, if the officials didn’t like the plan they should put their name to it. There were phone calls made between officials in the council and the department, we all know officials are great ones for writing notes and emails about this and that, why no record of these calls? There are a lot of people who left Mayo in the 1930s and later who want to come back here, but they cant now because of this. You’re after interfering with democracy. Get rid of local democracy if ye want, because ye don’t like the way they do things, but tell the people at least you are going to do this. You’re not answerable or accountable to anyone, unlike the local representatives who go before the people.”