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The Dáil is going to undergo some serious surgery in the next few weeks.
The changes that occur at a local level after ambitious councillors make the grade and gain access to the corridors of Leinster House, however, seem taken for granted.
This year, it looks like six Dublin city councillors will leave City Hall: Denise Mitchell of Sinn Féin, Sean Haughey of Fianna Fáil, Jim O’Callaghan of Fianna Fáil, Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael, Noel Rock of Fine Gael, and Brid Smith of People Before Profit.
So how does the replacement of sitting councillors work?
Under the current rules, if a sitting councillor who belongs to a party is elected to the Dáil, then the “casual vacancy”, as it’s known, is to be occupied by someone from the same political party.
These rules have been in place since 1898, but they were amended under the Local Government Act 2001 to specify the political party clause.
Although the outgoing councillor can campaign on behalf of their potential replacement, it’s up to the party members in the outgoing councillor’s area to decide the replacement. A meeting is held shortly after the event to decide. In essence, the party wins a council seat and not the individual candidate.
Independent councilllors, meanwhile, can nominate a person of their choice when elected to the Dáil. In the event that an independent councillor does not wish to nominate a replacement, or if a councillor dies while in office, then a replacement is covered under the rules that the council runs by, also known as standing orders.
Labour councillor Dermot Lacey was himself co-opted onto the council in 1993 and sees no major issue with the process as it stands.
“The co-option process leaves the balance of the council the same as the public determined it,” he says. “That’s obviously the plus for it.”
To some, it may seem off that the political party holds the council seat for the term time; after all, some people vote for the candidate rather than the party. But more complicated still is that independents can nominate someone of their own choosing, regardless of political stripe or experience.
Sinn Féin councillors Anthony Connaghan and Gaye Fagan were co-opted onto the council in 2011 and 2015, respectively. Neither disagree with the system in place.
Connaghan says that the others in his local cumman who were potential replacements “would have been similar” to himself in terms of local community involvement.
The system as it stands elected councillor Gaye Fagan to the council, yet she questions how it may affect the gender balance on the council. After all, there’s no rule, it seems, about replacing men or women, with men or women.
What About By-elections?
Under the current system, there’s no cast-iron guarantee that an outgoing independent councillor will have similar policy aims as a co-opted replacement, although it is likely that an outgoing councillor will choose an ideological sister or brother.
Labour’s Lacey feels that “it would probably be administratively messy” were the process otherwise. Any consideration of the best process must also take into account timing and cost: would the public be bothered with a local by-election so soon after a national one, and who’s going to front the money for it?
Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McAuliffe also agrees with the system in place. “It’s to avoid the idea of another council election,” he says. “Can you imagine us now having another election in three weeks?”
It’s hard to gauge the cost of, let alone interest in, holding a by-election to replace outgoing councillors. The Department of the Environment says it “does not collate information on the cost of by-elections”.
The six Dublin city councillors elected to the 32nd Dáil will now have to vacate their council seats. Let’s see who replaces them.